Worship 8/9/20

Call to Worship/Psalm 27 (NRSV)

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—my adversaries and foes—they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”  Your face, Lord, do I seek.

Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.

Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.

Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Opening Prayer

Although our questions often overwhelm us, and our doubts sometimes drown out our hopes, we praise you, O God, for the gift of faith. Although we miss the signs of the new life you are bringing, and ignore the small resurrections bursting forth around us, we praise you, Divine Spirit, for the gift of faith. Although we may be skeptical, and refuse to believe without proof, we praise you, O Christ, for the gift of faith. Thank you, Great Mystery, for your life that transcends our understanding, for your presence from which we can never escape, for your victory over death and despair, and for the gift of faith that enables us to trust even in the midst of our doubts and fears. Be with us, O God, in this time of worship, that we may open our hearts to you and learn to live more fully into our shared faith in the gift of your Son, Jesus the Christ, in whose holy name we pray.  Amen.

Scripture/John 20:19-31 (NRSV)

19When 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.”  20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 

24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25So 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.”

26A 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.”  27Then 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.”  28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Message/Thomas

If I were to mention the names of certain disciples to you and ask you to write down the first word that comes into your mind, it is unlikely you would come up with the same words.  If I were to mention the name of Judas many of you would probably write down the word “betray” but not all of you.  If I were to mention Simon Peter, some of you would write down the word “pillar of faith,” but not all of you.  If I were to mention the names of James and John, some of you would write down the phrase “Sons of Thunder,” but not all of you.  But when I mention the word Thomas, there is little question about the word most everyone would write down.  It would be the word doubt.  Indeed, so closely have we associated Thomas with this word, that we have coined a phrase to describe him: “Doubting Thomas.”  Over the years, the more that I have engaged this story, the more I feel that Thomas has been given a bum rap.

You may be interested to know that in the first three gospels we are told absolutely nothing at all about Thomas.  It is only in John’s Gospel that he emerges as a distinct personality, but even then, there are only 155 words about him.  We know almost nothing about Thomas’ background.  His name is a transliteration of the Aramaic word for “twin.”  In other words, Thomas may not have been his real name, but rather a nickname.  While the Bible tells us that he had a twin, it does not give the twin’s name.

In the first episode when we meet Thomas, Jesus desires to go to Bethany to see the dying Lazarus.  Because of Bethany’s proximity to Jerusalem, the disciples thought that it would be dangerous to travel there.  Already, plots had been hatching and rumors circulating.  Surely Jesus didn’t want to take such a chance.  Jesus then tells them that Lazarus has died.  I can imagine the disciples thinking, “Whew, we sure missed a bullet there…sorry about Lazarus, but at least there won’t be other deaths—our own—to worry about.”  But then Jesus declares his intentions to go anyway.  It is into this anxious moment that Thomas finds his voice, declaring “let us go so that we may die with him.”  It was a bold statement, yet we don’t seem to remember him for that.  Actually, it’s debatable whether this was a courageous statement or not.  It might just be indicative of Thomas’ propensity for sober reasoning.  It may be likely that his words had a more resigned meaning, something like, “Well, if Jesus really wants to die, we might as well go down with him.” 

The second episode in which we find Thomas is around the table in the upper room.  Following the footwashing, the meal, and the exit of the betrayer, Jesus offers his final address to the disciples.  In this address, Jesus shares: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going.”  While most of us are taken by the eloquence of Jesus words, words that we often employ to comfort persons who are grieving the loss of someone beloved to them, the ever rational Thomas interjects with a question: “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  Here, Jesus is baring his soul prior to his death and sharing that, regardless what tragedy and pain the next hours will bring, he will be not leave them behind, Thomas interrupts him to ask for a roadmap.  Rather than being in the moment, Thomas is already attempting to move several steps ahead, thinking through what he perceives to be the situation and then asking for clarification.  I can almost hear Jesus’ thoughts—“Slow down, Thomas.  You are overanalyzing this.  Just trust me and don’t worry so much about the details.  You and the others will be just fine.  Things are going to get crazy and confusing for a while, but God’s got this!  You’ll see.”

And so, in the third episode, we find the disciples fearfully huddled behind locked doors, doors that cannot prohibit the risen Jesus from revealing himself to those gathered there.  All, except for Thomas.  We don’t know where he was.  Perhaps he was a private person, feeling the need to express his grief alone, rather than in the presence of others.  We can only speculate.  But the story shares that Jesus returns, and this time Thomas is with them.  We often fail to remember that in this story of Thomas’ doubt, we have the one place in the all the Gospels where the Christ’s divinity is most bluntly and unequivocally stated.  The irony here is that the story that gives Thomas his infamous nickname, is the same story that has Thomas making an earth-shattering confession of faith.  Look at his confession, “My Lord, and my God.”  Not teacher.  Not Messiah.  But God!  It is the only place where Jesus is called God without qualification of any kind.  It is uttered with conviction as if Thomas was simply recognizing a fact, just as 2 + 2 = 4, and the sun is in the sky.  You are my Lord and my God!  These are certainly not the words of a skeptic. 

And let’s face it, the other gospels share of people who doubted Jesus’ resurrection.  Take for example, Jesus words of farewell at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the part we often refer to as The Great Commission.  As that story begins we read: “When they saw him; they worshiped him; but some doubted.”  Post-resurrection stories in both the gospels of Luke and Mark also share of others who doubted, who passed off the resurrection as an idle tale.  In John’s Gospel this morning, we are given a name and a face, a personal account of one who doubted.

Yet, history remembers Thomas for this scene where the resurrected Christ made an appearance to the disciples in a home in Jerusalem.  Thomas wasn’t present, and when he heard about the event, he refused to believe it.  Maybe he was the forerunner of modern-day cynicism.  Maybe the news simply sounded too good to be true.  Thomas said: “Unless I feel the nail prints in his hands I will not believe.”  Yet, in the story, Jesus does not berate or belittle Thomas for his doubts, but rather affirms his presence.  Touch and see.  The scripture doesn’t say that Thomas actually touched Jesus, it just shares that Jesus offer Thomas the opportunity to touch his nail-scarred hand.  For Thomas it seems that just the offer, just the invitation to touch them was enough.

I, for one, am glad that Thomas was one of the disciples.  There is something refreshingly honest about his personality.  He wasn’t afraid to ask the hard questions.  He didn’t pull punches when he saw something that didn’t seem to add up.  He was bold enough to be willing to take the heat for frankly sharing his skepticism.  It seems to me that Thomas gives us permission for those times when the world is pressing in on us and things seem to be falling apart to wonder where God is, looking for some sort of sign of God’s presence.  There are times when touching those nail-scarred hands would be a source of great comfort and healing.  One of the great theologians of the 20th century, Paul Tillich asserts that “doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.”  After all, if faith could be proven, it would no longer be faith, but rather a formula, an equation in which we could plug in certain variables and come up with an answer.  But God’s grace doesn’t work like that.  It can’t be calculated or figured out through human reason.  Grace is a pure gift of God that transcends our finite logic. Other Christian writers and thinkers offer similar observations.  Frederick Buechner comments: “if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep.  Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.”  Scottish biologist and theologian Henry Drummond offers this poignant thought: “Christ never failed to distinguish between doubt and unbelief.  Doubt is can’t believe; Unbelief is won’t believe; Doubt is honesty; Unbelief is obstinacy; Doubt is looking for light; Unbelief is content with darkness.”

Let’s not forget that in all of the post-resurrection appearances in the gospel, Jesus reveals himself.  Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus when he calls her by name.  Cleopas and his companion recognize Jesus as he blesses and breaks the bread.  Jesus had already revealed himself to the other disciples and Thomas asks for nothing more than to see the proof they had already experienced, recognizing Jesus in his scarred hands and wounded side.  Jesus does not chide or chasten Thomas for his doubts.  Jesus doesn’t seem to be concerned with the grounds or conditions that Thomas establishes for faith.  He is much more concerned about Thomas’ faith.  So, he provides what Thomas needs at that moment to come to faith.  Then Jesus shares this beatitude: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  This blessing extends to us.  Jesus’ blessing is not a slap at Thomas but rather a blessing that puts all Christians of all times and places on the same level before God as the original disciples.  I find Thomas’ brutal honesty before God and those present greatly liberating.  If only I could be so honest with God and with myself.

Helen Keller once said: “It need not discourage us if we are full of doubts.  Healthy questions keep faith dynamic.  Unless we start with doubts, we cannot have a deeply rooted faith.  One who believes lightly and unthinkingly has not much of a belief.  He who has faith which is not to be shaken has won it through blood and tears—has worked his way from doubt to truth as one who reaches a clearing through a thicket of brambles and thorns.”

According to the most reliable traditions, Thomas went as far as India to share the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  When Vasco da Gama and his Portuguese explorers arrive in India around 1500 AD, they found a church there that identified itself as the Christians of St. Thomas.  A sixth century source tells us that a traveler in India founded a church in Malabar and about a bishop in Galiana, south of Bombay.  Tradition holds that Thomas died a martyr’s death in a suburb of Madras, on a mountain that now bears the name Mount Thomas where he was pierced by a spear.  The spear has become his symbol and is often accompanied by an L or T-Square, since he was apparently a builder by trade.  A major body in India has for centuries carried Thomas’ name, the Mar Thoma Church. 

So, perhaps the next time we are tempted to call someone a “doubting Thomas,” we will remember that Thomas stands in for all persons through the ages whose faith has been forged in the crucible of question and doubt—and that his honest doubt ultimately led him to be able to offer the most vigorous and committed confession of faith to be found anywhere in the New Testament: “My Lord and my God!” 

Sonnet for St. Thomas the Apostle (Malcolm Guite)

‘We do not know … how can we know the way?’

Courageous master of the awkward question,

you spoke the words the others dared not say

and cut through their evasion and abstraction.

O doubting Thomas, father of my faith,

you put your finger on the nub of things:

we cannot love some disembodied wraith,

but flesh and blood must be our king of kings.

Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,

feel after him and find him in the flesh.

Because he loved your awkward counterpoint,

the Word has heard and granted your wish.

O place my hands with yours, help me divine

the wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.

Pastoral Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, in this world where hopes are so often dashed and dreams so often broken, we remember the promises that you have made and the aspirations that you have inspired through your life among us and in your resurrection from the dead.

We remember how Mary and Joseph looked forward to the day of your birth, how shepherds and magi caught their breath in wonder as they knelt before you, how the hearts of Anna and Simeon leapt in anticipation, and how your disciples and the crowds that flocked to hear you gave thanks, convinced that you were the Messiah, the one God had promised, the long-awaited deliverer come to set them free.

We remember how that vision of the future was shattered by events to follow—your pain, humiliation, suffering and death—hope ebbing away as the lifeblood seeped from your body—an end to their dreams, an end to everything.

We remember how the news spread that the tomb was empty, the stone rolled away, your body gone, and how, despite it all, your followers could scarcely bring themselves to hope—afraid to take the risk of faith in case they should face the heartache of losing you again.

But we remember finally how you appeared, in all your risen glory—in the garden, in the upstairs room, on the Emmaus road, by the Sea of Galilee—and the dream was born again, the smoldering embers of faith rekindled.

Lord Jesus Christ, our world is waiting, hurting, longing, searching for hope, crying out for meaning, and hungry for some reason to believe. Come again in your living power and bring new life to all. Where faith has died and dreams have faded, may hope flower again. In the name of the risen Christ, who taught his disciples to pray together as one family:

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Benediction

Jesus said: “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am now sending you.”

Jesus believes in you.

The busy world awaits your compassion.

Sometimes you will give your best and yet fail.

At other times you will succeed in spite of your stumbling.

Go gladly, daring to succeed or fail, all to the glory of God.

May the courage of the redeeming Christ,

the power of the Living God,

and the guidance of the loving Spirit,

be with you every step of the way, now and always.  Amen!