Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 27, 2014

2014.04.27 “Man in the Corner” – John 20: 19 – 31

Central United Methodist Church

Man in the Corner

Pastor David L. Haley

The 2nd Sunday of Easter

John 20: 19 – 31

April 27th, 2014

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

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

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

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: 19 – 31, the New Revised Standard Version

In every congregation I’ve served, there have always been people on the periphery.  I think you know who I’m talking about; maybe it is you.

If there is a back pew, you are on it. (Don’t turn and look!) If there is a group picture, you would be in the back. If there is a call for volunteers, the extroverts step forward, and you step back. Do you recognize yourself?  Please note, this is not a criticism; only an observation. In fact, I have an affection and appreciation for people on the periphery, as an important part of every congregation.  Due to their unique perspective, sometimes the observations of people on the fringe can give you more helpful insights about what’s really going on in church, that people heavily involved.

Why are there people on the periphery? Overall there is no one reason, but several, not all good. Sometimes, there might be a personality disorder. For example, in one of my congregations, we had a group of young adults. There was a young man who attended almost every gathering, but rarely did he ever say anything. Whenever a group picture was taken, he would be in the back.  One day, the senior pastor called me in and handed me a letter the young man had written. I can’t remember now how he got it, but the President was coming to town, and the letter, written by the young man to the president, was full of threats and obscenities.  We kept a closer eye on him after that.

There are others, without personality disorders, who just feel inferior, who struggle with self-esteem. They may be people who have struggled their whole lives, from their upbringing, their circumstances, and as a result, they just don’t feel they are on the same playing field as all the other more confident, exuberant people who attend church.

Then there are the introverts. Introversion is not a personality disorder; despite what all the extroverts who run the world tell us. It’s amazing we introverts (yes, I consider myself one) even come to church (a social gathering) at all, and if they do, it’s not surprising we would sit on the back row, or somewhere in the corner. The absolute worst thing we could ever do to introverts, certain to insure they will never return again, would be what some churches used to do to visitors: “Would you please stand and introduce yourself to the congregation?”  It’s a wonder they didn’t run right out the door, never to come back!

Then, there are those without personality disorder, those whose self-esteem is appropriate, those for whom introversion is not crippling, but who have another problem: they struggle for faith, they struggle to believe. They come to church because they seek faith, and want to believe, and yet faith doesn’t come easily, definitely not as easily as all those who sing and pray and affirm faith so exuberantly, apparently without a shadow of doubt or disbelief. There are more of them (of us, I should say) than we think, in church.

If this is the case, if you are such a person, then this morning’s story from the Gospel of John is for you.

It’s a familiar story; it’s the same Gospel we read every year for the second Sunday of Easter. It occurs on the evening of Jesus’ resurrection. The doors are locked, the shades are drawn, the disciples of Jesus have imploded upon themselves, in fear.  Suddenly, to their great surprise and joy, Jesus’ appears, arisen from the dead, speaking peace.

But there was at least one who did not experience it, because he was not there.  Where he was; the text doesn’t say: maybe dentist appointment, his daughter’s piano recital? I mean, consider: you’ve followed Jesus for three years, then seen him brutally murdered. Maybe they’re coming for you next. There are rumors Jesus’ body is missing and that he has been seen; where would you be?  But when Jesus shows up, Thomas wasn’t there.

Furthermore, the story tells us Thomas didn’t get his opportunity until a week later; imagine what that very long week must have been like for Thomas?  Everybody is going on about how they saw Jesus, how great it was, and how now they BELIEVE; and there’s Thomas, the man in the corner, who can’t share their excitement, because – well, guess you had to be there. And until he can be there, and see it for himself, he can’t take their word for it.  That must have been a long and miserable week.  If there had been a back pew in the room, surely Thomas would have been on it.

Then, according to the story, it happens; Thomas gets his chance. Jesus appears, and someone must have tipped him off, because this time he goes for the man in the corner, Thomas.  “Thomas, put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” The text does not tell us whether Thomas actually did – as the artist Caravaggio here portrays – touch Jesus wounds, but it does tell us that Thomas responded with one of the most exalted acclamations in the four Gospels: “My Lord and my God!”

Of course, we doubters say: “If Jesus showed up here, presenting me with the opportunity to see and to touch – whether or not I would – I too could believe without a doubt, as Thomas eventually did.”

But that’s just the point: no one since has had such an opportunity, and the Gospel anticipates that, in fact seems to have been written just for this reason.  And so Jesus says: “Thomas, have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And, then, like a revivalist preacher ending his sermon, John steps up into his pulpit to say:

“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’s Gospel was the last of the Four Gospels, chronologically, written somewhere around the end of the first century, some 60 to 70 years after Jesus.  It was written to Christian believers who had not seen Jesus, and had no chance of seeing Jesus, any more than we do. Many of them were struggling for faith, as we sometimes do.  So to them, John – through the mouth of Jesus – is saying: “Yes, I know it is hard to believe.  Faith – in the world in which we find ourselves – is almost always a struggle.  But BELIEVE – and keep on believing.

Did you know that the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, struggled with doubt?  Even though his father was a Pastor, and his mother Susannah was very religious, even though John himself was very religious and had started a Holy Club at Oxford, he had deep doubts about his own faith.

In 1735 John Wesley came here to America, to Georgia, as a missionary. On the way, when the ship went through a huge storm, he was terrified.  When he watched a group of German Moravian Brethren – men, women and children – keep calm and pray, he doubted his own faith.

In Georgia, his mission was a failure. His rigid high churchmanship divided the people and turned them against him; and he had a mismanaged and unfortunate love affair with a young woman named Sophy Hopkey. When she married another man, and he foolishly refused her holy communion, it was the last straw. He had to sneak out of town under cover of darkness, and returned to England.

There, he met another German Moravian named Peter Bohler, who told Wesley that salvation was by faith alone, and convinced him of it. Because Wesley didn’t feel he had it, his first impulse was to cease preaching, but the Bohler told him to “preach faith until you have it, then because you have it you will preach it.”  Wesley followed Bohler’s advice, until finally, on May 24, 1738, he “went reluctantly” (setting the precedent for Methodists ever since) to that meeting on Aldersgate Street, after which he recorded in his Journal what are perhaps his most famous words:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even MINE, and saved ME from the law of sin and death.”

Even that was not the end of Wesley’s doubt and struggle, but ever after, he looked at upon it as a turning point.

Even now, it was good advice Bohler gave Wesley, still good advice for us who seek but still sometimes still struggle to believe.  Not so much to preach faith (although that would apply to us preachers), but to practice faith – to do the things faithful people do, such as worship, meet with other Christians, read your bible, pray, give, study, do good deeds – until one day you suddenly find you do believe.  It is the same, I think, as relationships in life: we may find we have a hard time loving another person, but if we act lovingly toward them, in time we find we actually do come to love them.

Meanwhile, for those who are on the periphery, feeling like Thomas, that you are consigned to the corner, remember that it was to such a one that Jesus came, not rebuking doubt, but rewarding faith.

We need you here in the church, because you help us to keep it real. When I think back, of such fragile souls on the periphery of my congregations that I came to love, not always easily, in retrospect they taught me more about what it means to be church, than those who believed and participate so easily.

The truth is – at some time or another – we all find ourselves on the periphery, the man or woman in the corner.  And the truth also is, whether we find ourselves on the periphery or in the center, we all need each other, need to embrace and encourage and support one another.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  May God grant to us such budding, blossoming faith, like the trees and flowers in springtime.  Amen.

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