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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Seeing is Believing? - 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 again 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 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.

Christ is risen! (Wait for response). Today is Easter. It may surprise you, but today is Easter. Last week, we pulled out all the stops. The choir was full, the church was full of flowers, we had brass and strings at the 11 o’clock service, and we all went home filled with the joy of the resurrection.

Today, the choir is off, the lilies are wilting, and the preaching duty falls to your associate pastor, lowly and humble is he.

And yet, you’re still here. Why are you here? Because, today is still Easter. In fact, every day is Easter for Christians, because every day we remember that Christ died and rose on our behalf, and we remember that he has conquered the powers of sin and death. Easter isn’t just a day on a church’s calendar to be celebrated only once a year. Easter is a way of life which unlocks all doors, and most especially, the door of death. May we pray.

Doubting Thomas
In our text this morning, we encounter the disciples of Jesus on the evening on the first Easter Sunday. Perhaps only 12 hours earlier, Jesus has appeared to the women in the garden, and the resurrection is now a reality rather than something hoped for. Yet, the picture we get of the disciples in our text this evening doesn’t exactly fill us with the hope of the resurrection. This text tended to focus on Thomas, and the moral of the story was that Thomas was a dull, doubting follower of Jesus whose example we shouldn’t imitate. Don’t be like Thomas! Believe! Don’t doubt!

I have to admit I always thought this treatment of Thomas was a little bit unfair. After all, we Thomases tend to stick together! Thomases are practical, down-to-earth, rational people. Thomases are concrete. Thomases are the ones you want on the team, because they usually assign lists of the work to be done to various team members, and help pull those silly daydreamers down out of the sky. Someone with the name Thomas simply wants all the available evidence placed in front of them before they make their mind up on something.

I don’t think Thomas’ request is all that unreasonable. In fact, I think it’s a shame that all we know him for is his doubt, when there’s really so much more to him. Thomases, you see, are complex people. Whenever this lesson was taught in Sunday School, the teacher would tell us not to be like Thomas because he doubted. Perhaps what was most troubling to me, however, was not the fact that we shared a name, but that I, like this other Thomas, had my doubts.

What is the relationship between doubt and faith? The point of so much popular Christian teaching gets boiled down to an oversimplified formula. Faith is good. Doubt is bad. Faith conquers all. Doubt calls too many things into question. In many places, the admission of doubt would cause others around us to question the sincerity of our spiritual commitments. Is that person really a Christian? Will they really inherit eternal life?

In the world of certain faith, where doubt is cast as an enemy, it’s difficult to proceed. We can too easily force people to deal with their doubts and questions in secret and dark places. I’ve watched people struggling alone with deep questions because they were afraid of how others might react to their doubts. Doubts and uncertainty frighten us. I think that’s why we tend to reject Thomas, because Thomas dares to bring doubt into our lives of faith.

But friends, doubt and faith are not opposites. James Fowler, in Stages of Faith, tells us that doubt often comes as a catalyst to deeper faith. The great reformer, Martin Luther, talks about working through his own doubts, and how those doubts became part of the process of faith and of being a Christian. John Wesley frequently spoke of “degrees of faith,” in which a person’s faith may be present to varying degrees. In my own life, periods of the greatest questioning and doubting have led to some of my most profound experiences of faith.

And yet, we single out Thomas. For 2000 years, we’ve known him simply as “Doubting Thomas.” But, take a look at what the other disciples were up to. The disciples of Jesus were gathered together. Remember, Thomas was absent from this gathering. Those disciples, gathered on the evening of that first Easter Sunday, are a picture of the most miserable little conglomeration of people to ever assemble and take upon themselves the name “church.” They were supposed to be out in the street, proclaiming the Easter Shout that Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed! Yet, there they were, like frightened rabbits behind a set of locked doors.

They were hunkered down, frightened, cowering, hoping no one would discover them there. As Tom Long says, this is the church at its worst: “scarred, disheartened, defensive.” How would such a church advertise itself in the community? The church where all are welcome? Locked doors are not a sign of hospitality. This church doesn’t have a warm heart and a bold mission. All it has, from our perspective, is shaky knees and sweaty palms.

And yet, we single out Thomas. But give the man some credit. Because, when he is finally able to touch the place pierced by the nails, he comes out with the boldest assertion imaginable. He falls to his knees as Jesus’ feet, and he says “My Lord and my God.” Do you get the significance of this? Thomas is the first one to get it. Thomas makes the connection that God has been among them the whole time.

Out of doubt was born Christianity’s most profound confession to date. As Thomas has shown us, there is a place for doubt, and profound faith can be born out of it. Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas because of his doubt. Far from it, Jesus meets Thomas where he is.

What the church had (and has)
Thankfully, Jesus is in the habit of meeting people where they are. Amen? I know the disciples must have been thankful for this fact on the evening of that first Easter. There they were, with locked doors, defeated members, and fear. They were a church with absolutely nothing. No sanctuary, no pulpit, no choir, no adorable preacher. No plan, no mission, no conviction. Nothing going for it – except that when it gathered, the risen Christ pushed through the locked door, threw back the bolt, and stood among them. And for any of us, when that happens, that’s as close as we get to being called “Church.”

Churches sometimes will try to define themselves based on a whole host of other things. Why are insignificant things are allowed to become more important than the presence of the risen Christ? We can put up all sorts of things that will block and lock Christ out of our lives, both as individuals, but also as a congregation. Are those things perhaps simply a form of those disciples locked doors?

We all know these things. We all know churches that define themselves primarily in terms of these things, and to whom the presence of the risen Christ is noticeably absent. Some churches are built around the personality of their pastors. Now, John Fitzgerald and I both have no shortage of personality, but we’d rather not be the center of attention here. To some churches, the clothing of those leading worship is more important than Christ. For some, the architecture or the bricks and mortar of the building themselves are more important. Some churches are proud of their formality of their informality. Others place their trust in their denominational identity, or the fact that they have no denominational identity. The list goes on and on – a liberal or conservative identity, political agendas, or even what type of coffee is served. And then, of course, worship style, time of worship, type of music that are more important to some than whether or not the risen Christ is actually present.

These things do not make the church. I get frustrated when people want to make these things the most important issue a church has to deal with. They are secondary to the presence of the risen Christ. When you are focused on Christ, these things fall to the periphery. If these things are the most important thing to you, if worship is dependent on their presence or absence, or if their presence or absence really grinds your gears, there’s a word for it. It’s idolatry.

My prayer is that we’ll find those doors unlocked and the risen Christ will appear in our midst.

My prayer, when people in this community talk about us, is they not even mention these other things. My prayer is that they say, “that is a place where you can expect to meet the risen Christ. Jesus shows up there. He lives and walks among the people there.

To the church who has nothing, and the church who appears to have everything, one thing makes the difference. It is the presence of the risen Christ. He gives us everything we need. Church is a gift from God to the world, a gift from a God who refused to leave us alone. His presence makes the Church, and gives us everything we need – mission, spirit, and forgiveness.

We are church not because of where we meet. Not because the bishop authorizes us to hold divine worship in this place. Not because of the building, the music, the programs, or even the adorable preacher. We are church because to us—yes, even to us—Christ has come and given us gifts of Spirit, mission, and forgiveness, and commissioned us to give them to the whole world in his name.

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