Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 19, 2009

2009.04.19 “Even Better Blessings”

Central United Methodist Church

Pastor David L. Haley

“Even Better Blessings”

2nd Sunday of Easter

John 20: 19 – 31

April 19th, 2009

      “Later on that day, the disciples had gathered together, but, fearful of the Jews, had locked all the doors in the house. Jesus entered, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.”  Then he showed them his hands and side. The disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were exuberant. Jesus repeated his greeting: “Peace to you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you.” Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he said.  “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”

         But Thomas, sometimes called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We saw the Master.” But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.”

         Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.” Then he focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.” Thomas said, “My Master! My God!”

         Jesus said, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”

         Jesus provided far more God-revealing signs than are written down in this book. These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it. (John 20: 19 – 31, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson)

       Now that Easter and tax day have passed, my family has emerged from crisis mode and can watch movies again.  The one we watched this week was “Doubt”, starring Meryl Streep.

In “Doubt”, based upon the Pulitizer Prize winning play by John Patrick Shanley, Streep portrays a Sister of Charity nun, Sister Aloysius. Sister Aloysius is the principal of a Catholic school, who comes to suspects the priest of child abuse. Through the entire movie she plays a woman of steel and relentless persistence, until, in a surprising scene near the end she breaks down, and confesses to another sister: “Oh, sister, I have doubt, I have such doubt.”

What’s not clear is whether her doubt is in her case against the priest, or in her faith with God, as evidenced by her strong grip on her cross and the revelation that the bishop has promoted the priest she believes to be a child molester to be the pastor of another church.

        Doubt.  At some time – maybe most of the time – all of us have it.  It simmers, eating at our faith and beliefs, making us wonder, in the absence of proof, whether what we believe is so.

Whether our doubt is fueled by skepticism (which has doubled in America in the last two decades); or science, which continues to peel back the curtain of much once relegated to faith; or scandal, as Sister Aloysius, doubt may lead us to lose faith in religious institutions and absolutes.     

On the positive side, without doubt, it is questionable whether our faith would ever change, grow, or mature. Trappist priest Thomas Merton once said:

“For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial “doubt.” This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious “faith” of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton, p. 12)

        You might be relieved to find that doubt is not just our problem, nor only a modern problem, but a problem inherent in faith. Jennifer Michael Hecht in her book Doubt: A History (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), says that unlike the Romans, whose civic religion was tied to rites, or the Jews, who were bound by Torah and Law, early Christians had neither. Instead they focused on belief. “With Christianity, managing one’s doubt . . . became the central drama.”

        And so it is that for the Second Sunday of Easter, doubt does becomes the central drama, with the story of “Doubting Thomas” as told today in the Gospel of John.

You might think that after what the women discovered (and reported) at the tomb and last’s week’s glorious Easter service, we would return to find the narrative advanced, but we don’t, no more than we found the world changed when we returned home last Sunday.

If, on the 1st Sunday of Easter we went looking for Jesus, on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, he comes looking for us.

        In the Gospel, it is still the evening of resurrection day, and we find Jesus’ disciples hiding out behind closed doors, for fear that what happened to Jesus might happen to them.  Every loud noise, every sudden sound brings a shudder of fear, as they imagine footsteps on the stairs. 

        In a great sermon on this text, “The Seeing Heart,” writer Frederick Buechner says that he had a seminary professor who once told him that you really can’t hear what the stories in the Bible are saying until you hear them as stories about ourselves.  So says Buechner:

“I don’t know of any story in the Bible that is easier to imagine ourselves into than this one from John’s Gospel because it is a story about trying to believe in Jesus in a world that is as full of shadows and ambiguities and longings and doubts and glimmers of holiness as the room where the story takes place is and as you and I are inside ourselves.” (“The Seeing Heart,” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, by Frederic Buechner.)

Suddenly, Jesus stands among them, saying, “Peace be with you.”

But there was one disciple not there, Thomas, “Doubting Thomas,” we call him. And so when the other disciples reported what had happened he said, “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.”

A week later, the disciples are in the same room (they’re not moving very fast, are they?) and this time Thomas is there, and in the same manner Jesus appears, and this time says to Thomas:

“Thomas, how dare you bring your doubts here?”  “You and your doubts, get out of here!”

No, what he says is, “Here, Thomas,” says Jesus, “put your finger here.  Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.” And Thomas says, “My Master! My God!”

University of Chicago professor and ancient Greek specialist Glenn W. Most wrote a book, Doubting Thomas (Harvard University Press, 2005), giving a close reading of the Thomas story as it appears in the Gospel of John. Perhaps the most startling claim he makes in his analysis of the dialogue is that Thomas never actually touched the wounds in Jesus’ hands and sides, despite centuries of tradition (as this painting by Caravaggio) saying otherwise. 

“This is the first time,” Most notes, “in the whole of John’s Gospel, or in fact in any of the New Testament Gospels, that anyone calls Jesus a god, let alone to his face.”  But he argues that readers who believe Thomas’s startling outcry follows from touching Jesus are mentally supplying a sentence or a thought not in the text.

“Thomas’s attempt to found religious faith upon the empirical sense of touch fails utterly: to suppose that Thomas might actually have touched Jesus, and thereby have been brought to belief in his divinity, is to misunderstand not just some detail of John’s account, but its deepest and most fundamental message,” Most writes.  (From Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, “Faith and Doubt After Easter,” by David E. Anderson, April 21, 2006, Episode no. 934)

What Thomas really did, was not touch Jesus, but for the first time, “see” Jesus. Frederick Buechner, in the sermon I mentioned earlier (“The Seeing Heart”), suggests that, for Thomas, perhaps it was the first time that he saw not just “the fact of Jesus,” but “the truth of Jesus and the truth of who Jesus was for him.” And thus he exclaimed, in the highest acclamation of faith in the Gospels, “My Lord and my God.”

With Jesus then saying, “So, Thomas, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.” And so John the Evangelist shows us that Thomas, instead of being the Patron Saint of Doubters, is really a gift to all of us who can’t see but believe, bringing even better blessings.

        To whom was John speaking? Certainly his generation of Christians, some 60 years after Jesus, undergoing persecution and hardship, wondering, now they can no longer see for themselves, whether it is true and whether they can keep on believing.  I mean, just think of the Jewish Holocaust, 70 years ago, and some with the audacity now to say that it never happened. 

        But John was also speaking to all future Christians, including us — no longer able to touch or see Jesus, no longer able to have “proof”, but who believe, and choose to keep on believing in the absence of proof. Even better blessings, says Jesus, are in store for us.”

        And then John’s Gospel becomes like the end of a play, where the curtain comes down and the lights go up, and the author steps out on the stage for a final curtain call.  Or better yet, like a preacher at the end of his sermon, extending the invitation.

The small church I grew up in Kentucky was in the revivalist tradition. Every sermon ended with an altar call, sometimes with shouting, sometimes crying.  Sometimes at the end, the preacher would lean over the pulpit and plead: While the organist plays just one more verse of ‘Just As I Am,’ “Won’t you come? Won’t you?”

At the end of this story, the old preacher John leans over the pulpit of this Gospel and pleads: 

“I could have written a lot more about Jesus. I could have preached all night.  But I’ve done all I know how to do.  What I have written I have written not that you might have the facts, but that you might believe, and that believing you might have life in his name. You don’t have to put your fingers in his hands or your hands in his side. You don’t have to see him standing before you. Anyone can believe.  Anyone can experience the difference it makes to live life in Jesus’ name.  “Won’t you? Won’t you?”

And as for those better blessings? 

“To see [Jesus] with the heart,” says Frederic Buechner,

“is to know that in the long run his kind of life is the only life worth living. To see him with the heart is not only to believe in him but little by little to become bearers to each other of his healing life until we become finally healed and whole and alive within ourselves. To see him with the heart is to take heart, to grow true hearts, brave hearts, at last.” (“The Seeing Heart,” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, by Frederic Buechner.)

Doubts we WILL have.  But even better blessings.


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