First Congregational Church
April 8, 2018
First Sunday after Easter
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Some 20 years ago, there was a woman named Betty Leslie-Melville, who wrote the book, Elephant Have Right of Way. The conservation-minded book made into a movie tells the story of the time before there was a valid concern for accuracy in foreign language film translations. Assuming that people in the U.S. wouldn’t understand, an Englishman who spoke Swahili was asked to write an urgent-sounding sentence in the language. He did so, and all went well until the movie was shown in Nairobi (where everyone spoke Swahili). The drama of the moment was reduced to high comedy when what the messenger actually said as he threw himself, exhausted, before the chief was, "I do not think I am getting paid enough money for this part."
The week after Easter, if a church isn’t celebrating Holy Humor Sunday, then it’s almost certain to focus on the passage we will hear in a few moments. It’s actually a great passage, taking off from last week’s scene of the empty tomb, with all the running to and fro, after the Sabbath, of course.
Jesus Appears to His Disciples
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Jesus Appears to Thomas
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
The Purpose of John’s Gospel
30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Thank you, Mary Ann. I’m sure there are many here, like myself, who have sometimes wonder about my brain. One of the reasons I say that is that there is that saying that goes, “We will always be friends until we are old, and then we’ll be new friends.” I know I’ve read the Bible - a lot, and not a much as I probably should - but there are still pieces of it that rise up - like a new friend. Actually, I know - and I hope you all know - that things pop out to us at different times in our lives, because we are at different places in our lives. Even so, I know some folks still wonder about my noggin.
The thing that was like “new” this week - for me - was the part where Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Aside from hoping halitosis was not an issue, I would have “remembered” that the Holy Spirit was breathed onto the all the disciples - and apostles and followers of Jesus - on the day of Pentecost. Apparently, a few trips through the Bible just isn’t enough to keep all the events easily in mind.
It is also interesting, that while Jesus showed up to all the disciples except Thomas, and all had their opportunity to touch Jesus and hug him and fist bump, and who knows, maybe even do a few chest bumps, and after he first says, “Peace be with you,” which is probable code for “don’t be afraid,” then giving them a commission to spread the gospel, Jesus gives them this rather straight-forward admonishment about forgiveness. Makes one wonder if Jesus had an ulterior motive in that sequencing, or if it was really all about John as the gospel writer, which is a topic for another day.
Today, however, is Thomas’ day. Maybe it’s a good thing that the Bible doesn’t give us too many indicators of “how” something was said or done, because it leaves room for a wider application. For far too long, Thomas was made out to be limited by his lack of faith. Maybe the real situation was about honesty and self-confidence. In fact, there is a quote from the great Atticus Finch, of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, that fits Thomas perfectly. “Watch carefully, the magic that occurs when you give a person just enough comfort, to be themselves.”
Thomas, most erroneously known as Doubting Thomas, also known as Didymus, which means “Twin” in Greek, has no identifiable other half - of which we know. It’s understandable that Thomas gets the label of “Doubting,” because besides this morning’s encounter, Thomas was the one who asked Jesus, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” to which Jesus replied, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
It was also Thomas who confirmed Jesus’ idea to go to Lazarus’ family, even though he was dead (before he was raised), to mourn with their friends. Aside from those things, we don’t know how Thomas came to be a follower of Jesus, what he did for a living before he met Jesus, or anything else, other than these three incidents over the course of Jesus’ ministry.
There is an old story of one person who was disturbed to find a fisher person sitting lazily beside a boat. "Why aren't you out there fishing?" the first person asked.
"Because I've caught enough fish for today," said the fisher person. "Why don't you catch more fish than you need?' the first person asked. "What would I do with them?"
"You could earn more money," came the impatient reply, "and buy a better boat so you could go deeper and catch more fish. You could purchase nylon nets, catch even more fish, and make more money. Soon you'd have a fleet of boats and be rich."
The fisherman asked, "Then what would I do?" "You could sit down and enjoy life," said the first person. "What do you think I'm doing now?" the fisher person replied as she looked placidly out to sea.
So here’s a new insight about Thomas that I’d not thought of before: he wasn’t alone in his doubt. David Lose, of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis pointed out that no one - even after all the predictions - no one says, "Welcome back." Or "We knew it." Or even "What took you so long?" No one anticipates Jesus’ return and when he shows up, everyone doubts. Everyone.
It’s the realism of this story that can hit home - not just of Thomas, but the realism also about how hard, at times, it can be to believe. Who among us, had we been in Thomas’ sandals, would have not been guarded with the idea of a dead man coming back to life - 2,000 years ago - or even today? Because isn’t that the inherent question behind the question? Who among us wouldn’t benefit from a little pressing of the flesh, Jesus’ flesh, specifically speaking?
It’s sometimes easy to think that people so far back in history were more naïve bumpkin than discerning realist. Mary Hinkle Shore of Brevard, N.C. put it so respectfully. “Thomas will not be shamed into believing, or shamed into at least keeping his unbelief to himself. Neither will Thomas ignore what he knows in order to believe something he does not know.” And the translation of that and all of Thomas’ holding-out for evidence gives our doubt room to be part of who we are.
As I thought about all this freedom to doubt - especially in regards to matters of spirituality - it struck me that it is so easy to look up the answer to any question these days, with compliments to Google, Bing, Ask or any other internet search engine you please. And yet, I still remember, clear as day, one of my seminary professors saying, “It’s okay to answer a question with, “I don’t know. Make sure you follow it up with, “but I’ll find out,” and do the follow through.”
For way too long, we have allowed doubt and uncertainty to loom in the background as big, bad monsters - in the area of faith, at least. It’s okay to allow them out into the Light of Christ, who gives us not just second chances to confirm God’s presence in our lives, but third and fourth and fifth opportunities to come to the place where Thomas was when he said, “My Lord and my God!”
Some of us have been there, to that place of certainty of faith, and for whatever reason, find ourselves no longer so certain. Some of us have never been to that place before, and may even have little if any hope of ever getting there. Some of us are in the middle of that place of “My Lord and my God!” welling up over and over and overflowing your heart, marred by a little shadow of fear that it could go away. The Good News Thomas shows us is that questioning is not refusal or doubt, but loyalty and faithfulness to the Presence of the Holy Spirit, not to the rumor of it, even if it seems as illogical as a dead man rising to life again.
Thomas reminds us that we don’t have to fall for the happily ever after Jesus, the ‘It was nothing, I'm fine Jesus.’ Notice, too, that there is no mention of Jesus saying anything like, “I’m going to wait until Thomas is away from the group, so I can teach him a lesson he won’t forget.” He wasn’t singled out for a testing, but was given the opportunity to reach out to Jesus, just as we’re all given opportunities to reach out, regardless of where we are in our lives.
In one of the poems that Steven Garnaas Holmes wrote for this first post-Easter week, he suggested that maybe we are Thomas’ twin, starting a poem with “Seeker, twin of Tomas, keep searching. Keep looking to see; keep stretching out your hand. With such a practical thought, let us reach out to the One who is Enough as we pray.
Holy and More-Than-Sufficient God, there are times when we find ourselves wanting more; more proof, more presence, more power. Those are the times when we fail to put our eggs into the basket of faith - that you are Enough, that Christ is Enough, that the Holy Spirit is Enough - and then some - for each and every one of us.
Sometimes we lose perspective, so help us refocus and see just how close you are. Thank you, for the doubts of life, that through them we know we are real and not just puppets on anyone’s string. Help our doubts turn into firm belief. Thank you, too, for the lessons those doubts teach us, as well as the faith amid our doubts that help us through those times we question not just our faith, but you, too. Help us to keep our doubts near at hand as we work to be your resurrection people in bringing the hope of Christ to those we encounter in need. As we thank you, God, for enough, that by trusting, we may have life in your name, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.