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May 21, 2017

Pastor Fowler’s Sermon for May 21, 2017

“Faithful Thomas” John 20:19-31

 

There’s a story about a young girl learning gymnastics. She practiced gymnastics for several years and was about to begin learning to do a double back flip. She would use a long padded runway for practice, and wore a belt buckled to two ropes that went up over thirty feet and crossed pulleys to support her. The ropes were held by her spotter who could save her if she flipped off the runway by pulling on the ropes. She was getting the hang of it. Then one Saturday when her spotter pulled on the ropes, one of them came unclipped from her belt. The remaining rope swung her pendulum-like off the runway into the wall. She was not hurt, but was severely shaken. Now for her there was a crisis of faith. Suddenly she did not know what to expect. There was also a crisis of confidence. She began to doubt the rope, and to doubt her spotter. The double back flip didn’t seem so important anymore. 

 

Life can be like that for us. We go along in our daily routines, aware vaguely of our spotter, God. Then some crisis happens, the clip comes off of our belt, and something difficult happens to us-a loved one dies. Our finances are a mess. We lose our job. Our children or grandchildren are in trouble. The car we depend upon needs major repairs. It is during those moments when we swing unexpectedly into a wall, we have faith crisis, and we sometimes lose confidence in God, doubt our faith, doubt that the rope and the spotter really do have us safely, and have our best interests in mind.

 

But our story doesn’t begin with doubt. It begins with fear. Let us set the scene- The disciples were afraid for their lives- Their leader had been killed by an angry mob, and they figured they were next on the list. It was time to lock the doors and lay low. All of them were there together, and suddenly Mary Magdalene came running, and knocked excitedly on the door.“Open the door! Jesus has risen! I have seen it!” She says. Mary shared her story of seeing Jesus in the garden, then left the scene. The disciples remained in the upper room, except for one, Thomas, who may’ve gone out to look at the empty tomb for himself.  Then, despite the closed doors, Jesus appeared among the huddled disciples, and said “Peace be with you.” Then he said, “as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” What did Jesus mean when he said all these things to the disciples?

 

For John, unlike the other gospels, everything happened at once, all on Easter. According to verse 18, Jesus had already ascended to God, and in this account with the disciples, he gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit as well. In the other gospels, these events are well separated, but not in John- Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost are drawn tightly together in John’s narrative.

 

What does this scene symbolize for us? It is a glimpse of the beginnings of the Christian church- All the ingredients are there for us- a group of followers, the presence of the risen Lord, the sending of the church into the world, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the message of forgiveness. Just as Jesus has been sent by God with a mission, so Jesus sends out the early church on a mission; just as Jesus has been the bearer of God’s Spirit, so now the church becomes the bearer of the Spirit. Just as Jesus has declared the forgiveness of sins, now the church would become the bearer of forgiveness.

 

This scripture passage reminds us that we are unlike any other social group or gathering of people. We have divine origins that are traced back to this moment, as Jesus stood there before the disciples. Our reason for being is not in how many people we attract to become members, in how we serve the needs of the community, in what we build or how many people we feed- our reason for being a church is that Jesus has called us into being- and into a commission to go and spread the Good News.

 

The focal point of the story, however, is Thomas-John wants us to identify with Thomas.

Word came to Thomas that Jesus has not remained in the grave, when Mary Magdalene came earlier that day. We don’t know how the disciples responded to this news.  Perhaps they doubted Mary’s words.

 

 

They certainly doubted in Luke’s account of this scene, believing the women told an idle, useless, groundless tale. Perhaps Thomas went by himself to see the empty grave. For whatever reason, when he was gone, he missed seeing Jesus. He missed the party.  Jesus appeared while he was out, and Thomas was beside himself. He declared that he would not believe unless he could place his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side and his fingers in the wounds in Jesus’ wrists.

 

Thomas has unfortunately become the poster child for doubt. I have been called a “doubting Thomas” a few times in my life. Why did Thomas doubt? Who wouldn’t? He saw Jesus, crucified. He may’ve even helped take the body down from the cross. He saw Jesus, lifeless, dead. He saw them roll the heavy stone in front of the tomb. Who wouldn’t sensibly say- “Unless I have seen him, unless I can see the wounds in his hands and feet and side, unless I can touch them, I will not believe”?

 

In one way, Thomas represents the community to which John was writing- We believe the Gospel of John was written around 80A.D. Just prior to this time, Christians had suffered greatly during the reign of Emperor Nero (40-64 A.D.), and they were also being persecuted by faithful Jews during this time-Because of their new found faith in Jesus, many were thrown out of the synagogues, or cut off from their families.  It was a very difficult time to be a Christian. Furthermore, many early followers believed that Jesus would come back soon after his ascension. This had not yet happened, and it had been almost 50 years since Jesus had risen from the grave. Doubt must have been there in the small groups of followers who were trying to gain a new identity apart from the temple. For this struggling band of Christians, Thomas was the focal point of this story, the one with whom they identified. And Jesus’ response to Thomas’ doubt- “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe” is a gift to them.

 

This statement is a gift for us today as well.  We live in a world of doubt- strange days indeed. We are called to believe in a powerful and loving Creator, and yet we see suffering beyond measure in hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, famines, and global poverty. We are called to believe that the church makes a difference in humanity in this world through the power and presence of Christ. Yet we still see corruption, violence, warfare greed, hatred, and selfishness. We are also called to believe that Christ will return one day- Yet it has been almost 2000 years since these events we have read in the Gospel of John happened. It isn’t hard to be a doubting Thomas these days.

 

My spiritual director mentioned to me a passage from scripture about doubt which she called a gift- From the gospel of Mark 9:23-25. This is the story of a Father who comes to Jesus about his son who has seizures asking for Jesus to heal him. Jesus tells the father that,  “All things can be done for the one who believes.”  The father’s response- “I believe! Help my unbelief!” Our journey of faith is often like that of the father- We believe. Yet at times when we have difficulties in life, doubt is there as well-We believe! Help our unbelief!. In that regard, Thomas can be a good example for us. Christian theologian Oswald Chambers wrote, “Doubt is not always a sign that someone is wrong; it may be a sign that he or she is thinking.” I believe that doubt is also a sign of honesty within our faith. At times, we like Thomas need some evidence before we believe. And like the Father in the story from Mark we can believe and doubt at the same time. The hope and prayer is that in the midst of the struggle between belief and doubt, we will believe more in God’s love than trusting our own doubts; that we will believe more in the light than in the darkness.

 

In the national Gallery, London hangs a painting by Cima da Conegliano entitled “The Incredulity of St. Thomas.” It was the altarpiece for a chapel near Venice for nearly three hundred years. It modeled penitence: the change of heart and mind. In the painting, Thomas leans forward and in the midst of the disciples he places his finger in Jesus’ side. Jesus looks into Thomas’ eyes and he recognizes his Rabbonai.

His worries are being dissolved and his faith is being rekindled. Thomas is being lead from doubt to faith. Being an altarpiece gives one the clue to its purpose. Viewing the painting as one prepared to celebrate worship with others who were followers also, gave one the assurance that Jesus does not leave us alone with our doubts.

 

 

Our past experiences of faith, our own encounters with the Risen Christ can also help us move from doubt to faith. In looking back upon those profound moments of faith when I have felt the presence of Christ- just as Thomas did when he saw Jesus and confessed- “My Lord and my God”-those moments have sustained me, and have strengthened my faith for today. When a loved one died in my arms, I felt a profound sense of the spirit rising, and knew beyond a shadow of doubt that there was a life after this. There have been so many times when God has intervened just at the right moment in our lives; when the right person has shown up, or things have suddenly fallen into place. There have been times I have sung a hymn and teared up, or served communion and felt the presence of Christ.  In all of those moments, I believed. This past week when I went and visited Rob Grover in the hospital and we prayed, I knew and felt Christ’s presence, and doubt was nowhere present as Rob was getting ready to go home.

 

“Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe” These moments of Christ being faithful to me remind me that although we cannot see Jesus, we can feel his presence. In those moments, we know Christ is real. Those moments when God breaks through in profound ways, those thin spaces between heaven and earth are for all of us. Those moments of belief in part sustain and strengthen our faith for today and tomorrow; they can give us resolve as followers of Jesus to continue; for we who have not seen find evidence of Jesus in his presence.

 

What was the result of Jesus’ reappearance before the disciples? Prior to his arrival, they were in a state of unbelief, were paralyzed, spending their days hiding in the shadows.

Then Jesus appeared, and their faith was rekindled. Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick said, “It is cynicism and doubt that freezes life; it is faith that thaws it out, releases it, sets it free.” The Risen Christ’s appearances to the disciples energized them to spread the message of hope.

 

Consider for example, Thomas. What did Thomas do with the rest of his life? His faith was set free in his encounter with the Risen Jesus. Thomas went, according to tradition, to India. There he established the Church and served Jesus with his life. He became a martyr,dying rather than renouncing the risen Christ who had taken the time long ago in an upper room to feed his faith, and strengthen his belief. The voice of faith spoke louder to him than the voice of doubt. The Christian church in India today has approximately 27.8 million followers. Most of them are known as “St. Thomas Christians” who trace their faith lineage back to this original disciple. He had a huge impact on the world, all thanks to his faith. We should therefore think of Thomas as “Faithful Thomas” not “doubting Thomas.”

 

Rev. Donald Denton says, “Faith is the content of what we believe and the courage for what we do. Faith gives us hope-Hope is the light toward which we walk and the staff with which we walk. Faith gives us love-Love that won’t let us go when the waves get big and won’t let us quit when the path gets steep. Faith thus becomes the ability to take the next right step.”  May we remember that we who have not seen Jesus face to face are blessed for our belief in him. May we who believe be helped in our unbelief, giving thanks for Thomas and his faithful example. May the Spirit and power of the risen Lord speak to us all, so that the voice of doubt might be lessened in our hearts as we are sent out on our own missionary journeys. May we take that next right step, just as Thomas did, so that our faith might blaze forth, continuing the mission of the church, telling others that Christ has risen! He has risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.

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