Worship 4/11/21

Centering Thought [Thomas’ Look Back]

What has grief done to you?

What has it made you want to do?

Cling to what remains of the familiar?

Or get away from everyone and everything?

Me, whom you call the doubter?

Me, the disbelieving?

I’ll tell you what I couldn’t believe.

I couldn’t believe he was gone….dead and gone.

I couldn’t believe it was possible to take down a man like him.

I didn’t believe that someone with such life could die, just like the next person.

If they could destroy him, what chance did we have?

You know I doubted everything…doubted I could go on—

doubted we could survive without tearing each other apart;

doubted I had anything left to give but my rage and despair.

And the guilt, oh the guilt, I couldn’t stand the way none of us would say it:

“Why didn’t we speak out on his behalf?”

“Why didn’t we do more?”

“How could we have abandoned him like that?”

Stupid cowardly fools… I couldn’t believe I was so gutless.

The women showed us up alright.

They were there with him the whole time, quietly enduring the pain of their loss—

while we lurked in the shadows, draped in the heavy cloak of denial.

I see that Judas took the easy way out—well, I don’t blame him.

I was tempted, too.

Better to quickly take your own life than linger, humiliated on a Roman cross.

But I wanted to goad them too, wanted to scream down the city streets, “I’m one of his!

I don’t deny it! And he is Lord!  You murderers, he is Lord!”

That’s what I don’t doubt.

That’s what I can’t disbelieve.

He is Lord.

My Lord and my God.

Opening Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, the light of your love shines on, illuminating the places where you are present. As the bewildered disciples pondered the stories of your appearance, you penetrated the darkness of their fear and doubt with your word of peace. You showed them the places of your wounding; the scars from your pierced hands and side.  You opened their minds to understand why you had to suffer as you did to overcome sin and death. As we worship you this morning, increase our understanding. Open our minds and hearts to receive you, Lord. Speak your word of peace to us and let the light of your love illuminate dark corners of our lives. May this worship which we offer in your name be a worthy response to your love and your sacrifice for us.  Amen.

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.”  30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Message/Seeing Isn’t Believing

With so much of our culture biblically illiterate, there are still three stories, three individuals who remain popular in the common cultural vocabulary.  The first is the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ classic story of unexpected compassion found in Luke’s gospel.  The second is also found in Luke, the Prodigal Son—a tale of unlooked for grace and unpredictable acceptance.  The third is Doubting Thomas, the story of the disciple who would not take anyone’s testimony as true unless he could see for himself.  Since the Enlightenment, our rational, empirical, scientifically centered world has found the attitude and questions of Thomas, the Doubting Disciple, to be logical and legitimate.  Why believe the fantastic reports of others?  Why shouldn’t we demand physical evidence?  Why shouldn’t we require proof we can feel with our own hands, see with our own eyes?  Why shouldn’t “faith” be grounded in “fact?”  The fact that “Doubting Thomas” has remained one of the most memorable of gospel figures says as much about our own doubts and indecisions as it does about the appeal of this particular disciple.

So, let’s attempt an experiment of sorts.  Let’s try to forget everything we thought we knew about Thomas.  Notice that I didn’t say “Doubting Thomas,” as this nickname is the first thing we need to forget.  So, let’s forget that somewhere along the way we came to believe that Thomas’ primary attribute is doubt.  Forget that you may think of him as a slightly inferior disciple…. forget that you’re pretty sure Jesus rebukes him for his lack of faith.  Forget all of that.  Why?  Because in each case, the exact opposite is true.

First, in John’s Gospel—the only gospel where he has his own scene, lines, or characterization—Thomas is never described as “the doubter.”  Rather, he is Didymus “the Twin,” a fact that we often forget.  Further, when Jesus declares his intention to return to Judea—and the other disciples try to dissuade him because they know it will mean his death—it is Thomas in John 11:16 who urges the others to follow Jesus “so that we may die with him.”  Thomas is not so much a doubter as he is a realist.  A few days earlier he’d encountered reality like never before as he saw his friend and lord nailed to the cross and die.  Now, when his friends tell him that they’ve seen the Lord, he reacts with a realist’s skepticism, like a terminally ill patient who has accepted his fate might react to news of some new “miracle cure.”

Second, did you ever notice that what Thomas asked for was exactly what all the other disciples got?  When Jesus appeared to the other disciples, he showed them his hands and his side and only then, did the disciples rejoice “because they saw the Lord” (20:20).  One conclusion we might draw is that, despite his bum rap, Thomas is no worse than the other disciples.  More importantly, however, we’ve most likely misunderstood the nature of faith altogether, assuming that the “more” faith we have the fewer questions we’ll ask.  But the Bible offers a different picture of faith, one in which faith and doubt are woven much closer together than we might imagine.  Faith, after all, isn’t knowledge but rather trust.  As the author of Hebrews puts it faith “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” 

Let’s face it, there are many things that we trust, even if we don’t know all the facts.  For example, I have no idea how to conduct a heart catheterization—but do know that a board-certified cardiologist probably does—therefore, I place my trust in that cardiologist to help me in a time of need.  I don’t know how to do the procedure, about the amount of anesthesia needed, or about all of the physiological issues involved with it, therefore I must trust that the doctor does.  Likewise, I can’t explain how cell phones work, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t learn how to use one.  I must trust engineers, technicians, software developers, and others to build the system needed for me to text or make a call or check the weather or the latest baseball scores.  I trust that someone has figured all that out and that, if an emergency arises, I can depend on my cell phone to help me call 9-1-1 to request help.

When we look at the story, Thomas showed much more fortitude than did the others.  He was the only one of the disciples who was not so filled with fear that he was unwilling to leave the security of their locked doors.  When he returned and heard that the others had seen Jesus, he of course wanted to have the same experience himself, to receive the same assurance that the other disciples had received.  In our story, Thomas asks for nothing the other disciples haven’t already seen for themselves.  He is no more skeptical than they were prior to Jesus’ first appearance.

Third, I feel that Jesus’ words at the end of this scene aren’t really about Thomas at all.  After all, who are “those who have believed and not seen?”  Well, it starts with the members of the early Christian community to whom John writes—and continues to include all of us.  Jesus isn’t so much rebuking Thomas as he is blessing us.  John seems to be using this moment to prime the pump for all successive generations who confess Jesus as Lord.  Given that the author of John is writing to second and third generation Christians who are finding it increasingly challenging to live out their faith in a prominently pagan society, Jesus’ blessing offers hope and comfort.  It’s little wonder that John follows this scene with his own two-sentence purpose statement:  “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).  In other words, what happens to Thomas is exactly what John hopes will happen to each of us when we read his story.

In his sermon, The Seeing Heart, Frederick Buechner draws our attention not directly to Thomas but to his twin.  Buechner confesses: “if you want to know who the other twin is, I can tell you.  I am the other twin, and unless I miss my guess, so are you.”  In many ways, this is our place in the story.  We have not seen the nail scarred hands and side of Jesus as Thomas and the other disciples did.  But we have seen the scars that other persons, and even ourselves, bear which testify to God’s presence and healing in times of great struggle and duress.  We did not hear the risen Christ’s voice speaking words of comfort to them in the upper room: “Peace be with you.”  But we have all experienced the comfort Jesus offers when someone has dropped off a pie at the door, or sent a meaningful, heartfelt note of condolence, or came to our home and sat with us in our pain, sharing stories and memories, laughter, and tears with us.

Not to conflate resurrection stories but in the one found at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the risen Jesus meets the eleven remaining disciples on a mountain in Galilee.  There, just as Jesus was about to offer words that we have come to know as “The Great Commission,” the text says: “when they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”  Those who walked with Jesus for those three years and who had lived through so much in the days of their teacher’s passion, doubted.  Seeing wasn’t necessarily believing.  After all, dead people don’t typically come back to life and, in this case, the weight of shame of death by execution on a cross as a common criminal was particularly disturbing and disheartening.  Those disciples hadn’t even begun to deal with the shock of their loss much less move into any of the other stages of grief that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed in her seminal work, On Death and Dying.  After three days in the grave, Jesus shows up in the flesh and we, being the rational, logical, skeptical humans we are, suspect that when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is too good to be true.  To a world that thrives on competition, violence, and control, the Resurrection is a dramatic reversal of everything the disciples had thought they had known.  Their doubts are indicative of the active process of faith.  When confronted with data that offers something contrary to what we have known, we don’t typically just turn off our past and shift over to the new paradigm.  It takes time.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  But when we open our eyes to take in this new vision, we learn the lesson that where there is doubt, there is great potential for a deeper faith.

You see, doubt is only the enemy of faith when we equate faith with certainty in our own ways of thinking and understanding the world.  Doubt is what being locked behind the doors of our own certainties looks like.  Doubt happens when the need to be certain has run its course.  Doubt is a spiritual relocation—God’s way of saying to us “we need to move on from what we’ve previously understood into seeing the world in a new way.”  Doubt forces our hand, causing us to do things spiritually that must be done that we would never do on our own; causing us to ask questions that we’ve never dared to before.  Doubt confronts us with the challenge of a deeper trust in God.  Just like Jesus’ intrusion through the locked doors of the upper room in our text, doubt tears down the walls that we have built that offer a false sense of security and forces us to reach out to God further than we’ve ever had to before. 

To be lost in the crucible of doubt is often a scary and lonely place.  Thomas and the disciples were wondering if anything they had come to know about God made any sense or any difference at all.  The ways of human violence and injustice had won.  Their teacher, mentor, healer had been put to death on an ignominious cross.  Their wounded souls were raw. throbbing with the pain of grief and honest doubt.  But then, the risen Christ walks in, revealing that God’s ways are not the ways of the world.  Without accusation, without judgment, without demanding apology or explanation, Jesus calmly, gently, compassionately offers his peace reminding them of God’s power and presence even as their whole world seemed to be crumbling down around them.  You see, doubting God is frightening because we think we’re leaving God behind, when in fact—we are only leaving behind ideas of God that we are used to surrounding ourselves with—the small God, the God within our control, the God who moves in our circles.  Doubt strips away the distractions so we can more clearly see the inadequacies of whom we think God is.

When we think Easter is only about the death and resurrection of Jesus, we’re only seeing part of the story.  Easter is also about our own death and resurrection.  Easter is the death of our old ways of thinking and understanding and rising to new life into a deeper, more robust relationship with the God who is always challenging and inviting us to draw ever more closely to the divine heart.  Perhaps this is what the apostle Paul had in mind when he shared these soaring words with the early Christians in Galatia: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”  As we have discovered in the story of Thomas and the other disciples—and may have even discovered within ourselves in our own stories—seeing isn’t necessarily believing.  Perhaps it’s the opposite that is true—maybe it’s believing, even in the midst of all our fear-filled questions and doubts, that opens our eyes to see…

The Great Thanksgiving

The Lord be with us.

Let us lift up our hearts.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, almighty God, creator of heaven and earth. You formed us in your image and breathed into us the breath of life. When we turned away, and our love failed, your love remained steadfast. You delivered us from captivity, made covenant to be our sovereign God, brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, and set before us the way of life.

And so, with your people on earth and all the company of heaven we praise your name and join their unending hymn:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

Holy are you and blessed is your Son Jesus Christ. By the baptism of his suffering, death, and resurrection you gave birth to your Church, delivered us from slavery to sin and death, and made with us a new covenant by water and the Spirit.

By your great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of your Son from the dead and to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. Once we were no people, but now we are your people, declaring your wonderful deeds in Christ, who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.

When the Lord Jesus ascended, he promised to be with us always, in the power of your Word and Holy Spirit.

On the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said: “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

When the supper was over he took the cup, gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said: “Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

On the day you raised him from the dead he was recognized by his disciples in the breaking of the bread, and in the power of your Holy Spirit your Church has continued in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.

And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith.

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us wherever we are gathered, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.

By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast at his heavenly banquet. Through your Son Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in your holy Church, all honor and glory is yours, almighty God, now and for ever.  Amen.

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.

Breaking the Bread

Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.

The cup over which we give thanks is a sharing in the blood of Christ.

Sharing the Bread & Cup

Prayer after Communion

Let us pray:

Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us.

Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit, to give ourselves for others, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Benediction/Blessing

Go from here as witnesses of what you have seen and heard.

Share God’s love with those you meet.

Bring hope to those who are in despair.

Live lives of gratitude and praise.

And may the love of God, the peace of Jesus Christ, and the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit be within you and among you until we meet again.  Amen.