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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Jesus is OK with Doubt (John 20:19-31)

It was still the first day of the week.  That evening, while disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them.  He said, “Peace be with you.”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and side.  When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy.  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”  Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
Thomas, the one called Didymus [or the twin], one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came.  The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”  But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them.  Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them.  He said, “Peace be with you.”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here.  Look at my hands.  Put your hand into my side.  No more disbelief.  Believe!”
Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me?  Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll.  But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.

Has anyone wished you a happy Easter today?  If not, then let me be the first.  Happy Easter!  Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!)  May the reality of new life in Christ be yours today, may you be filled with joy, because it is still Easter.  We know that technically, Easter is a season, a 7-week-long season of celebration and joy that stretches from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday.  But even more than that, Easter is an everyday reality for the followers of Jesus - every day is an opportunity to behold that all things are being made new in Christ, every day is an opportunity for the newness of life in Christ to spring up in the cold and dead places of our own lives - for those in Christ, every day is Easter.

And so yes, today is still Easter.  Christ is risen!  (Christ is risen indeed!)   God is still transforming hollowed out tombs into places bursting with new life, and today, no less than last week, we continue to have life-giving encounters with the living Christ.  May we pray.

A Story for the Faithful Few
The Scripture reading we read a few minutes ago is John’s account of what happened on the evening of the very first Easter Sunday.  If this story is familiar to you, you are likely one of the few but faithful who regularly attend worship on this Second Sunday of Easter.  On this Sunday each year, the lectionary brings us one account or another of this particular story - of fearful disciples who have barricaded themselves in an upper room, how the resurrected Jesus stood among them, and of Thomas, more commonly known as “Doubting Thomas,” who wasn’t there, and refused to believe until he saw it for himself.

Doubting Thomas - he is portrayed as a kind of stick-in-the-mud, the disciple who comes to the party just a little bit late and is a total buzz-kill when he finally gets there.  If the disciples were Winnie the Pooh characters, Thomas would play the part of Eeyore.

Futher, we have tended to teach that, of all the disciples, there are two not to be like - don’t be like Judas, who sold Jesus out for a few silver coins, and don’t be like Thomas - because he had doubt instead of faith.

Do you mind if I stick up for Thomas for minute?  Thomases are very practical, down-to-earth, rational people.  Thomases are nuts and bolts people who like concrete ideas and concepts.  Thomases tend to be a bit skeptical, a bit cynical, and a bit difficult to convince.  I should know - I am a Thomas myself.

Like Thomas, doubt itself gets a bad wrap, too.  I don’t think doubt, questions, or uncertainty bother Jesus at all.  They may bother us, especially if we prefer absolutes, but friends, you can doubt and question Jesus all you want - trust me, the risen Jesus can take it.

Besides, doubt is often an important part of the journey toward 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, the founder of Methodism, frequently spoke of “degrees of faith,” much like the thermostat in your home is not simply “on” or “off,” but has the ability to heat up or cool down incrementally, so too is our faith not simply a matter of “Yes, you have it,” or “No, you don’t.”  In my own life, periods of doubt and questioning have led to some of my most profound experiences of faith.
 
Doubting  Absent Thomas
The resurrected Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples at a time when Thomas wasn’t there - we don’t know why he wasn’t there or where he was.  Maybe he went out to get groceries or maybe he was keeping watch or maybe he just wasn’t as afraid as everyone else, but for whatever reason he wasn’t there.  Instead of calling him Doubting Thomas, maybe we should think of him as Absent Thomas.
 
In fact, I find it sort of funny that the lectionary brings us the story of Absent Thomas on a Sunday when the vast majority of our congregation is also absent!  I am so glad you are here this morning, and I hope and pray, as I do every Sunday, that you experience the living presence of Jesus in worship today.  But, I can’t help but wonder how we who have gathered today might live in such a way that the transforming presence of the living Jesus is shared with those who are not here, whether they are part of the crowds who were here last Sunday and are absent today, whether they are those who live within sight of our steeple but aren’t part of any faith community, whether they are those who - out of pain, or fear, or loneliness, or hopelessness - are living behind locked doors, or even those who are physically here today, but haven’t shown up spiritually in years.

In the life of Thomas, his doubt speaks out of the genuine reality that the risen and living Jesus hasn’t yet made an appearance in his life.

Thomas: Not Unlike His Peers (And Us!!)
Another reason not to single him out is that the rest of the disciples aren’t much of a prize at this point in the story, either.  How easy it is for us to forget that the first followers of Jesus didn’t have any more a clue what they were doing than we do!

On the evening of the first Easter Sunday, perhaps only 12 hours or so after Jesus first appeared to the women outside the empty tomb, you would have expected to find his followers out in the streets, shouting the Easter proclamation that Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!  It was Easter, it was victory day, it was time to shout and celebrate and share the good news that Jesus was alive - he is alive, indeed!

But that’s not where they were.  On what should have been their most defining and celebratory day, they were locked away, hiding, paralyzed by fear, hunkered down and expecting the worst.

Nothing Going For Them
If ever there was a church with a PR problem and a bad reputation to overcome, it was this church we have read about today - these first followers of Jesus in the hours just after he was raised to new life.  If ever there was a church in need of transformation or a congregational vitality study, this was it.  They were a church that any district superintendent would have described as a “unique and challenging opportunity.”

Sometimes I have wondered how such a church might promote itself to the community - “the church where all are welcome?”  Well, probably not - locked gates are not a sign of hospitality.  “The church with a warm heart and bold mission?”  Well, no - more like sweaty palms and shaky knees.
 
In short, the followers of Jesus on the first Easter night didn’t have anything going for them - they didn’t even have the luxury of arguing about the petty things churches today often argue about - no building, no music, no programs, no leadership team, no mission statement, no parking spaces, no fellowship hall, no money.
 
They were a church without any joy, and they didn’t even have a sense of purpose or direction. They were, as Tom Long says, “a picture of church at its very worst - scared, disheartened, defensive” - they were the most miserable little conglomeration of people that have ever gathered and called themselves a church.  Their entire long-term strategic plan had completely fallen apart, they had no plan B, no conviction about anything except their own fear; they had absolutely nothing going for them except for one thing:
 
When they gathered, the presence of the risen Christ was made real in their midst.
 
They were a breath away from giving up; but the risen and living Jesus breathed on them with the breath of new life, gave them the life-changing gift of the Holy Spirit, and commissioned them to breathe his new life into the world around them.
 
And that little rag-tag group of disciples, who were the church at their worst, who were the most miserable little gathering of people who ever called themselves a church - the presence of the risen Christ was made real when they gathered.  They found their joy, they found their purpose, they found their meaning.  Instead of giving up, they forever changed the world.
 
And so, even when we have nothing going for us, even when we’re at our worst, even we’re absent, God is still present.
 
Friends - that’s church.  What matters most?  The presence of the risen Christ made real in our midst.  It’s what changes our fear into hope, and our sorrow into joy.  Encountering the risen Christ - that’s what makes all the difference.

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