The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, April 11, 2010

It's not about Thomas

But here's a pic of him anyway :)

11 April 2010
Easter 2C
John 20:19-31


In the name of God: our life and our hope. Amen.

Every year, on the second Sunday of Easter, we hear this text: the story of Jesus’ Easter Evening appearance to the disciples. Well, to most of the disciples, anyway. That’s usually what we remember from today – “the one that got away”, as it were: “Doubting Thomas”.

On most years and in most churches, today’s attendance is expected to be about the lowest of the year. Perhaps it just feels that way because the church was so filled with visitors and the usually-abeyant members last week, but the fact remains: after the disruptions of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter Day, the second Sunday of Easter can feel something like business as usual; and, it’s easy to coast a little bit on a “business as usual” kind of day.

Yesterday I heard a friend of mine gently bemoaning the fact that he was preparing to preach on this text for the twenty-fourth time. Even though most of us haven’t had exactly that kind of familiarity with this story, there’s a degree to which I think we can all relate to that initial twinge of exhaustion as we approach today. Do we really need to hear about Thomas and his doubts again and again each year?

Feel free to follow up with me in another twenty years or so, but for now, I think I’d have to simply say, “yes”. We do need to hear this text every year – and maybe more often than that!

But before we see this story, we need to help Thomas shed some of his baggage.

It’s really unfair to label him “Doubting Thomas” – as if he were the only one who doubted! Just last week we heard the story from earlier in the day of today’s story: the story of Mary and the other women finding the empty tomb and being the first to learn of Christ’s Resurrection. When they returned to the other followers of Jesus who had gathered together in fear and told them of the Resurrection, those others also didn’t believe. They doubted. They thought the women were simply telling an “idle tale”.

So to label Thomas as “the doubter” among them simply isn’t fair.

It’s even more unfair if we’re the ones doing the labeling.

The Resurrection is certainly our hope. And on our better days, I think many of us actually do believe. But even the most faithful among us would, I believe, if we were to search some of the most honest and private recesses of our hearts, find at least a kernel of doubt. I know I do. While I do believe in the Resurrection, I also have my own kernels of doubt. I’d be lying if I tried to say I didn’t.

We have all, after all, seen death. We have felt the absence and the sense of loneliness that is its product. We have mourned. How could we not doubt when death, in our experience, is so real?

Doubt is nothing to fear or to be ashamed of. Doubt is a sign of living faith. Without doubt our faith would be static and our relationships with God would seem bland.

So before we can really think about “Doubting Thomas Sunday” there are two things we need to clarify: it’s not really about Thomas, and it’s not really about doubt.

So what is it about? Many things, to be sure. But at the very least, it is about the Resurrection of Christ and the apostolate of Christ’s followers: the sending out into the world of Christ’s followers to continue the mission of Christ. In short: it’s about Easter.

The thing about seeing Christ is that it is a very personal experience. I can talk all day about those times and places in my own life when I have seen Christ. And while such talk could possibly help to inspire faith in another, it almost certainly won’t show Christ to another. We don’t show Christ to others. Christ reveals himself.

In all of the Resurrection appearances about which we hear in the Bible there is some measure of disconnect – even if only a moment – between seeing and recognizing. Christ appears, but something has to shift before the interaction unleashes revelation. That shift occurs in the interplay between faith and doubt. As faith and doubt dance in our hearts, therein lies the opportunity for openness. It is in the midst of that dance that Christ breaks in.

So while we can’t show Christ to others, we can work to inspire the active and living faith of others.

But we can’t do that while we’re sitting here in the church.

Among Jesus’ first words spoken to his followers after his Resurrection were these: “As God has sent me, so I send you.”

In their fear and grief in the days surrounding the crucifixion, those who had followed Jesus suddenly stopped. John tells us that they were gathered together in a house with the doors locked.

During Lent, we as a parish began to explore the concept of creating a “missional church”. Our Lenten education series centered on this idea. We brought in guest speakers and had weeks of discussions about the different ways that we could fling wide the doors of the church, and perhaps, even be so bold as to walk outside.

That wasn’t just a Lenten discipline of study or simply an academic exercise. While the education series may be over, the calling persists. As God sends Christ into the world, so, too, Christ continues to send us into the world.

That Resurrection on that first Easter was not just a magic trick meant to show us that Christ really is of God. It does that, but it also does much more. The Resurrection on that first Easter was a precedent – in line with the precedents all the way from the creation of the world even unto today. Resurrection is God’s way of doing business. God is and always has been about bringing forth life. And we are called to go out into a world that is preoccupied with death to plant the seeds of faith and hope in the fields of doubt.

So while today may feel like something of a return to “business as usual” in the life of the church; and, while the work of Resurrection is certainly “business as usual” in the life of God, it is anything but “business as usual” in the experiences of the people we are called to serve. We owe our callings more than complacency. It’s not yet time to rest or to lock ourselves in our houses or churches. Now is the time to get up and get out. Now our real work begins.

As God sends Christ, so Christ sends us. Amen.

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