Sunday, April 8, 2018

Who is this Thomas? John 20:19-31

This week we are looking at Thomas, poor Thomas, the man who became a colloquialism…and yet the Gospel shows us that all, every one of Christ’s followers had doubted at one time or another. Except maybe the women.

Doubting Thomas how would you like to be stuck with that name and then have it mean something. I mean really mean something: If you look up this phrase in the dictionary, you'll find something like: "one who habitually or instinctively doubts or questions." A "doubting Thomas" is somebody who always lags behind in matters of faith. A "doubting Thomas" always needs more proof, more time. A "doubting Thomas" has some hard time trusting others.

I honestly believe Thomas gets a bum rap here. Was he the first to doubt what others told him? Allow me to throw a quote at you and tell me who it is about “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him say; ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’” What story is that from. . .. Mathew 14:31 Jesus walking on the water and who falters??? Peter “the rock!” Yes, and he sank like one!

Then again in Luke we hear how the women at the tomb learn of the resurrected Christ and told all they had seen to the Apostles then the book states “but these words seemed to them an idle tale.” It isn’t only Thomas who doubts but they all do. Peter even has to go see for himself the empty tomb.
In Luke when Jesus suddenly appears before the 11 he states “why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see.” And even after that the bible states that “they were disbelieving and still wondering.” In John’s gospel when Jesus appears to the 10 he shows them his feet and hands in order that they may believe it just happens that Thomas wasn’t there with the crowd.

We really do not know much about Thomas. He is listed as one of the 12 in Mathew, Mark, Luke.  But it is in John we see a bit more of Thomas though often we do not pay attention to him.  It is Thomas, who after learning that Lazarus has died, and the apostles complain that heading back towards the city could be dangerous, and Jesus could be killed, makes the statement; “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:6-16).

It is Thomas who is strong and zealous who is willing to go all the way with the Lord.  It is Thomas who asks; “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to Abba God except through me. If you had known me, you would have known Abba God also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:1-7) without Thomas’ questions we would never had this staple saying of our faith.

Without Thomas’ Statements and Faith, we never could have gotten to this day.  Thomas was devoted, loving follower of Jesus.  He was eager to learn and asked leading questions that gave us “I am the way”.  So is it any surprise that after Jesus’ Death he is broken, and like the others, afraid and confused and he just happened not to be in the room when Jesus appeared, so in his Grief, in his confusion and pain the statement arises.  Until I see for myself I will not believe it.

 I know Thomas.  I see Thomas almost daily.  He is on Facebook, he is on twitter, he walks with the incarcerated, he ministers in Hospitals, he can be very loud in certain groups of marginalized people, and he sits in every pew of every congregation. Poor Thomas has been branded “doubting Thomas” because of one moment.  One moment spoken in grief and confusion.

You may know we have regular visitors to our lawn and, the deer have been visiting for quite some time.  Yet when they are here, when someone notices and announces that a deer is here we all are compelled to see it for ourselves. A deer on a lawn is a common event and yet we must see.  So, who could blame Thomas in the midst of doubt, fear and confusion, when the disciples really had yet to come to understand the scriptures and all Jesus had said, who could blame Thomas for a human response. Joseph Richardson writes:

“The sense I get of Thomas, overall, is not the hard-nosed skeptic, but the passionate, devoted follower, deeply feeling, but like Peter, of so “little faith.” He was ready to follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, to give his all — but at Jesus’s death, he was shattered: all the hopes and dreams he had for the coming kingdom crushed. Dejected and depressed, he wandered away; he was not even hanging out with the other disciples when the resurrected Jesus first appeared. When he heard the news, he no doubt thought the companions delusional. His doubt was deeply rooted in disappointment and loss. How could he bring himself to believe again?”[1]

“Church leader Craig Dykstra once described the feeling of being overwhelmed "by the sheer hugeness or complexity of something. We can't get our arms around it. We can't get it figured out. We are unable to organize it or to bring it under control. We are overwhelmed in a way that makes us feel small, weak and inadequate."[2]

Overwhelmed, this must be how all the disciples were feeling at this time.  We find them all huddled together in this room with the doors locked for fear. They didn’t know if the romans or the church would be coming after them next and if so who would it be.  Would one of them turn in the others just to save their own neck much like Judas just did? They were scared, their leader and teacher who had held them together all those long months was dead and buried, executed like a common criminal, and lying in a tomb.

With Jesus gone so was their sense of direction and purpose.  All they had dreamed of whatever it might had been, whatever vision they had of a future…it wasn’t this. They were left only with an overwhelming sense of failure, loss, and shame, because they knew they had deserted Jesus in his hour of need. Reverend Kathryn Michaels asks; “Were they more disappointed and disillusioned with themselves, or with Jesus, who had raised their hopes so high? It would be hard to "get your arms around" that kind of disappointment, to "organize" the feeling of that kind of loss, to "bring under control" that depth of shame. They must have indeed felt "small, weak and inadequate."”[3]

To make matters worse one of the women is claiming she has seen the lord.  It is that troublesome Mary Magdalene as I said last week; “Mary has seen the Lord! Mary, a woman, who ventures out before dawn.  Mary who walks around independent of any man or any other companions.  Mary who is assuming she can roll back the stone.  Mary who keeps pace running with the men.”  This, in these men’s mind is not credible and yet it is raising questions. Her talk is making them nervous.

So now we have these very same men who went back thinking they have taken the lord, except for the beloved for he saw and believed. In one version Peter just goes home after seeing the empty tomb in John both Peter and the beloved go home after seeing the empty tomb. All this hub bub and confusion and grief and they leave their brothers in that room and they go home… not only is that rather anti climatic it is downright rude!

It is rather Ironic that in this Gospel the men are basically on lock down…afraid to go out…overwhelmed with grief and fear …prisoners of their own emotions and Jesus is resurrected and wandering about free and suddenly he is in the middle of the room or in their midst.  AHHHHH   why doesn’t anyone react this way … I mean knowing the time and place the first assumption would be a spirit!

But here he is Jesus is alive and… what did you do?

The disciples might have been just a little bit afraid that this was not all good news? That Jesus might be understandably angry with them for abandoning him, in Peter's case for even denying Jesus three times as he warmed himself by the fire in the courtyard, while his Lord and Savior was questioned by the religious authorities.

In the Gospel of Mark in the long ending Jesus does rebuke the disciples but not for all that happened up to the crucifixion but for not believing those who reported seeing the resurrected Christ.
“It's frightening enough to see someone who was dead suddenly alive, but what if he had every reason to say, "Where were you when I needed you? What kind of faithful disciples are you, anyway? Why did you run out on me? Peter, you especially, I picked you out to be the leader; how could you have denied me three times?"
But that's not what happened. Not in this Gospel. There were no recriminations, no anger, no condemnation or judgment, not   an understandable expression, or "venting," of disappointment and hurt. Instead, the first words Jesus offered were both greeting and gift: "Peace be with you."”[4]

In the midst of fear, guilt, grief Jesus arrives and offers peace.  There are no trumpets blaring, no hallelujah chorus being sung, no angels alighting everywhere! Just Jesus with a calming spirit offering peace and comfort. Offering true pastoral care.  This isn’t the time of sit down and tell me what you think you did wrong.  This isn’t the time to review all I taught nor to say that  you should have seen this coming.  This isn’t the time to make exciting plans for the next move no, no, no! Jesus comes offering Peace.

He brought peace, the offering of the Holy spirit, for this is Pentecost in John “’Peace to you. As the creator has sent me so I send you.’ And saying this he breathed on them saying receive the holy spirit.”

It is eight days later when they all have gathered together again that we see a repeat of the first scene only with Thomas this time.  Jesus is there, says peace be to you and then we take the thomas journey he is offered his rather gruesome wish , we do not know if he takes Jesus up on the offer “But instead …he leaps beyond the evidence and makes the affirmation to which the Gospel has been leading, all this time : “my lord and my God’ Then, just as we applaud his insight we find ourselves purring in self-satisfaction as we hear the next stage in the story ‘Happy are those who did not see and believed.”  Hey that’s us we are in the story!

It is interesting to see this Pentecost story, Johns Pentecost. “At creation, God breathed life into us humans, a tender, intimate, up-close and personal moment, and here we are again, with Jesus not holding his disciples at arm's length but re-creating this sorry crew of weak disciples, giving them the gift of new life, the gift of grace, and commissioning them to share that gift, that good news, with the world.”[5] just as God breathed life into the mud being and named us human Jesus now breathes the Holy spirit, the life giver herself, giving life and purpose to the disciples.

So who is Thomas really?

Thomas is human, Thomas is all of us.  To Doubt, to ask questions and seek answers strengthens the faith.  It is only through questioning and seeking that we can develop a strong faith. You see “In one sense, Thomas represents the burden of the intellectual: the doubt that comes from thinking and questioning; the demand of the rational mind for concrete, tangible proof.”  Unfortunately, we see the results of blind faith too often.  No questions, no explorations lead to a world where slavery is biblically authorized.  Blind Faith leads to a place where women are unequal and diminished.  Blind faith leads to a place where hatred, cruelty and even murder can be justified.  We see it way too often in this world.  Extremist and literalist make it difficult for us to eliminate prejudice, hatred, and war.

So where is that Peace?  How many times have we just wanted some peace…a piece of peace?  My parents would often ask if they could just get some peace and quiet around here!

“peace is a challenge in every setting of life, in families, communities, the world, and in the church itself. Ironically, we even argue about what it is, and how to achieve it. While my mother undoubtedly longed for some "peace and quiet," the "peace" brought by Jesus not only here, in the locked room of the cowering disciples but throughout his risky and controversial time in ministry, is a challenge as well as a gift. It can come with a price.
Sure, Rome bragged about a "Pax Romana," but that wasn't really peace--it was the silencing and immobilizing of those crushed beneath the heel of their legions' boots so that business could go on as usual, the business of empire, that is. That's not peace as Jesus brought peace, as God desires peace for us. God's peace is nothing less than transformative, and in that transforming, it will upset those in power, those with much to hold on to, and much to gain.”[6]
So introducing Christs concept of Peace, the peace that Jesus taught…doesn’t sound like it’s going to be very peaceful.

“Have you ever seen the Diet Coke and Mentos experiment that is all over the Internet and wondered what makes the reaction work? You might think that there is some ingredient in a Mentos candy that causes a chemical reaction with the soda pop, like the way baking soda reacts with vinegar. But the amazing eruption that takes place when Mentos are dropped into Diet Coke or other brands of diet soda pop is not a chemical reaction at all! Instead it is a physical reaction.”[7]

A Physical reaction…the rough surface of the candy lets the carbon release faster.

I cannot help but think that this is the way of the world.  As we push and become stronger for a better world, more food for the hungry, more money for health care, more services to the poor, more equity among all people, as we seek a better way to be care takers of the planet. There is going to be an eruption.  Actually there is an eruption we are seeing hidden anger and resentment come to the surface.

The other reaction I see is the anger and pain that comes to us as progressive Christians.

Rev. Kathryn Mathews reflects; “I confess that my heart is troubled when I think of the image many of my friends have of the church, and "church people," that is, Christians: they think of us as judgmental, harsh, hypocritical and at best, irrelevant (if not a problem and maybe even a threat). My friends "outside the church," even or especially if they were once "in" the church, seem surprised when I say that I find in the church a place of acceptance and challenge, not judgment, and not just warm, sentimental comfort. That's not the way they imagine or remember it.”[8]

This is the challenge we face, as Christians and as the United Church of Christ.  This can be as overwhelming as those early days of Christianity. we have to get the message out.  We are not the church you grew up with. The words, the welcome we proclaim every Sunday is not just a saying, it is what we believe and act upon.  This world and all that is going on seems overwhelming but each one of us can make a difference. Each one of us are messengers and bringers of Christ’s Peace! Yet we are not alone!

This is a denomination, this is a conference, this is an association, this is a congregation and we are its people.  We work as two and three united to become 60 or 70 united in community that join with 22 other churches to form the Golden gate association.  The Golden Gate Association Joins with 6 other associations to become the northern California/Nevada conference, this in turn joins 38 other conferences around our country to be the United church of Christ.

That is over 5000 churches over a million-people strong! On a local level we make a difference to cots to the people service center to bread for the world to the heifer project to our global ministries. Which means, we this little group of people here make a difference around the world. In each action we take we make Thomas proclamation “My Lord and My God!” we are here, we are your servants and though we may falter or feel overwhelmed or even out right doubt, we will continue to proclaim your name…we will continue to do your good work in this world that all may know an all loving God who loves each of us just as we are and proclaim a just world for all.  amen

[3] Ibid
[6] Ibid

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