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Certainty, Not Incredulity

Preached at 7:30 a.m service to St. George’s, U Street, NW Washington, D.C. (field ed site) on May 1, 2011. 
The Second Sunday of Easter, Year A (RCL): Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

First, before I get started: Please permit me a moment to say thank you: to Fr. Harris, to Fr. Hayden, and to you good people of St. George’s, for a wonderful, faithful, and full experience of Holy Week. What a joy is it to be with you, among you, as a part of you, to worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I thank you from the top of my spirit and the bottom of my heart! God bless you all!
Okay, now to the task at hand.
The journey to Easter, to the empty tomb and the risen Christ, is one that is filled with questioning and reconciliation as we follow the narratives which bring us to and through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. These stories provide many examples of what God would have us do and be through the living example of his Son. We even experience through Jesus the mystery of belief complete with its companions: questioning doubt and ultimate obedience.
And it never fails. The week following the Passion of Our Lord, his crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection, we come round about to this story of Thomas. Good old doubting Thomas. Perhaps you know it has been suggested that Thomas could be the patron saint of modern day people.
Now it is recorded in scripture that Thomas was a twin, and it makes me wonder if he was an identical twin. As such, he may have be very familiar with mistaken identity. Thomas may have known how easy it was to be wrong about something, even when we see it with our very own eyes. To me, that might explain why he couldn’t accept the disciples’ claims that they had seen the risen Lord. Thomas needed proof. He wanted to be sure.
Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” That would include us, right? None of us were present that day to walk or run to the tomb, we did not see the angels, nor we did hear Jesus call us by name in the garden. We were not present with the other disciples who were hiding from the Jewish authorities when Jesus first appeared in the upper room.
When we hear the Gospel, we sometimes identify with the characters in these stories. At least I do. But are we like Peter, who was overcome by fear when things got tough? Could we be strong like the women who stayed with Jesus despite the cost? Maybe. But some of us perhaps are most like Thomas. We have our doubts. We want some proof.
Many of us seek accuracy in these stories about Jesus so that we can feel assured of the truth - that proof - that all the witnesses agreed with one another, and this is exactly what happened. If you’re like me, you might want all things to be in good and proper order, both organized in our heads and laid upon our hearts. Yes, we all long for that nice, neat and tidy bundle that will build up our faith, help us to persevere and believe when we find ourselves in crisis, and that keeps us going forward over the long haul of discipleship.
What we get from the Gospel accounts are different stories filled with conflicting accounts. Some people see only the tomb left empty with burial linens strewn behind, others see an angel sitting on the stone rolled back or two angels inside the tomb, and more only recognize Jesus after he speaks or when he gives thanks while breaking bread. Everyone in these stories seems to be caught off guard by the resurrection. The disciples don’t seem to be capable of completely capturing their experiences with any accuracy. They always seem surprised by Jesus’ appearances. And even though he had tried to tell them many times beforehand, they still seem to struggle with how this resurrection thing actually works! Jesus comes to them in their fear, their confusion, and yes, their doubts, and greets them all with “Peace be with you.” And now, as we heard, he even makes a return visit the next week so that Thomas can also experience the resurrection first hand.
My wife Chrissie long ago introduced me to the works of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, better known as Caravaggio. He was a tenebrist painter who masterfully used shadow and light to create dramatic images. One such work is “The Incredulity of Thomas.” This rendering shows the risen Christ with Thomas and two others. The composition brings the heads of the four men together, all in close proximity to one another. Christ has drawn back his robe to expose his chest and right side as he grasps the wrist of Thomas to help guide his finger to the wound from the spear. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” The wide-eyed expression of Thomas is a moment of amazement as he feels the physicality of one now alive who he knew had died on a cross at Golgotha. “My Lord and my God.” The other two, with mouths agape and peering intently, are both mesmerized by Thomas’ need to know, and the Lord’s assurance that he, indeed, has risen. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This is but one depiction of this encounter, and please note, the Gospel account does not say Thomas actually touched the wounds of Christ.
Yet, we remember Thomas as ‘doubting.’ I’m not sure that’s fair to Thomas.
It’s important for us to remember that Jesus did not come to the disciples in a blaze of glory, surrounded by the heavenly host of angels, or accompanied by trumpet fanfares with pyrotechnic displays of light and thunder. Instead, our Lord comes quietly, even softly; as I said, he seems to catch the disciples unaware, by surprise.
The Christ that appears in that upper room comes with his wounds visible - a wounded savior coming before his wounded disciples. He is not all neat and tidy, for he still bears the wounds on his back, and in his hands and feet, and side. Jesus bears the marks of his suffering, for it is those marks which show his humanity. His resurrected body still shows signs of his becoming incarnate for us and dwelling among us. As people, we often struggle to hide our woundedness from one another, fearing that it will be seen as a sign of weakness. But here is the risen Christ, standing before his disciples then, and before us now, bearing his wounds and coming to meet us to bring us his peace. “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises, we are healed.” (Isa. 53:5)
When the risen Lord appeared to the disciples in the upper room, he brought them his peace, he breathed his spirit upon them, and then he commissioned them to live and preach his gospel of love, forgiveness, and peace.
In the creation story of Genesis, God molded Adam out of the dirt and breathed life into him. In that upper room, Jesus breathes that restoring life of God into the fearful, trembling disciples, making them new people and, through them, offering new life to the world. The very fact that we are all here this morning, in this place, for this reason, to continue celebrating the resurrection of our Lord, is a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit present in the disciples then, and in the church throughout the ages.
Jesus’ return to the upper room to appear before Thomas should tell us that doubts do not disqualify us from being Christ’s disciples. Jesus said to Thomas, and says to us now, “Do not doubt, but believe.” We’ve all have heard Fr. Harris remind us repeatedly that, “The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is fear.” And here is Jesus telling us, “Fear not.” Theologian and Philosopher Paul Tillich suggested that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, but rather it is an element of faith. Frederich Buechner, the Presbyterian pastor and writer, put it in more basic terms. In his book, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABCs, Buechner wrote, “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” No, we dare not suggest that doubts disqualify us from discipleship.
At the outset of the Gospel of John, the writer proclaims that, through Jesus, God has brought life and light to the world. You remember: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
In the death of Jesus on the cross, it appeared that the powers of darkness were stronger than the power of light, that the darkness had overcome the light. But through his resurrection, we are shown that the light of Christ still shines. Jesus commissioned the disciples to continue his work, to spread that light throughout the world. Their future changed through Christ’s gift of the Holy Spirit. By our baptism, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and made Christ’s own forever. We, too, have a new future because of Christ’s triumph over death by rising to new life. We, like those first disciples, have also been commissioned to spread the light of Christ.
Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, a contemporary theologian, asks us to consider the resurrection through the metaphor of the sun. She says,” We cannot look directly at the sun, for the brightest would blind us - our eyes are not suited to that strength of light. Yet the sun, which we cannot see directly, illumines all else, and in its light we make our way in the world.”1 She goes on to suggest that the resurrection “illumines the entire landscape of the New Testament: the resurrection is the confirmation of that which Jesus revealed in his life and death and it is the catalyst that transforms the disciples, releasing the power that led to the foundation of the church.”
This morning, as the world outside our doors has put away the colorful baskets and all the bunnies of Easter and moved on, we continue to live as though the resurrection really does illumine our lives. We dare to reach out and embrace the future in faith, believing that the light of Christ will help us make our way in this world. We are challenged to seek peace and reconciliation, knowing it is the work of the Holy Trinity and of the Church. Most of all, we must remember that while we may look at ourselves and see only doubting Thomases, God looks upon us and sees the best in us: God sees beloved children, faithful friends, spirit-filled partners, in the ongoing work of creation and redemption in this world.
This story of Thomas isn’t a picture frozen in time in that upper room in Jerusalem, even though Caravaggio painted it that way; it is Gospel, that good news which transcends both time and place. Whenever we practice forgiveness, whenever we push aside doubts to do the right thing, wherever we overcome the power of death in its many forms - whether it be hatred, violence or indifference - the spirit of Christ is alive and well in believers, and resurrection life is again expressed in this time and space. None of us can ‘prove’ the resurrection, but we point to it whenever we are living signs that the life of Christ has not been extinguished; it continues to be enfleshed in us and in every Christian community.
So if I leave you with one thought this day, let it be this: There’s much more to Thomas than meets the eye. “Thomas the Believer,” that is.
Let us pray.
Everliving God, who didst strengthen thine apostle Thomas with sure and certain faith in thy Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in thy sight; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee, and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
May. 1st, 2011 10:32 pm (UTC)
just finished reading your sermon for this morning and again I think it was great. In the past, many times I would look at the lectionary, usually several weeks in advance, and wonder just why those particular readings from the Old and New Testaments, the Gospel and they Psalms were selected for that particular Sunday. I wondered just how I was going to bring them together to make sense and maybe provide some enlightenment to the Congregation.
Dr. Fuller, who was my faculty advisor all three years, would tell me that those few minutes set aside for the sermon might be the only opportunity for teaching to some members of the congregation. When that happened I would look in the mirror and I saw my friend - "Doubting Thomas". That lead to many prayers seeking guidance. Eventually I would prepare a sermon that I thought was what I was suppose to share. Sometimes before I moved to the pulpit I still wondered if what I had written was what God wanted me to say. You may recall that before I started to move to the sermon my prayer that I spoke was: "May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable to you, my Lord and my Guide." Frequently I would set my notes aside and just let the Holy Spirit put the words in my mouth. I always recorded my sermons so that on Monday I could listen to what I had really said.

Sometimes after the service was over and I was standing at the door to speak to the members who were departing before going to the parish hall for refreshments and fellowship, someone would say "Thanks, that really helped me." I would ask them;" What was that and can we talk about it ?". I had no idea what they were referring to from what I had said. When I am asked to supply, I still try to record what I say from the pulpit.

Preaching for me is not really a task, even though there may be many hours in reading and prayer, but a privilege that God has provided me when I accepted His call with some degree of fear and trembling. One time I shared at a clergy conference with Bishop Smith that I still had a few butterflies in my stomach when I rose in the pulpit to deliver the sermon. Phil said;" That's a good thing. They you know that you will be sharing the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. If you don't feel that in your gut, you are speaking your own word."

This getting too long. I see the Holy Spirit at work in the sermons you have provided through your web site. God's peace and blessings always. Love, Dad
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )