Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 3, 2016

2016.04.03 “A Story About Us” – John 20:19-31


Central United Methodist Church
A Story About Us
John 20:19-31

Pastor David L. Haley
The 2nd Sunday of Easter
April 3, 2016
The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas_by_Caravaggio

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

 

Over the years I have come to appreciate the Sundays following major holidays, such as today, the 2nd Sunday of Easter.

I compare it to those times when we gather as families for formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals, or graduations. We gather for the ceremony, dressed in our best and on our best behavior. Then, after the formalities are over, we gather again informally, this time in jeans and T- shirts. It’s at time when everybody is relaxed and relieved, and – for better or worse – their normal selves.

The second Sunday of Easter is like that. Traditionally a low Sunday, the crowds that come for Easter Sunday have come and gone, the Easter lilies have disappeared, Easter eggs have disappeared into egg salad, and we are back to normal, whatever that is.

Did you know that on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, some churches are resurrecting an old Easter custom called “Holy Humor Sunday?”  It is rooted in an early Christian practice called the “risus paschalis,” (the Easter laugh), the idea that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. So for centuries – especially in Orthodox churches, the Sunday after Easter –”Bright Sunday” – was observed by the faithful as a day of joy and laughter with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. Church people and pastors played practical jokes on each other, drenched each other with water, told jokes, sang, and danced. (Don’t get any ideas!) Especially on this April Fool’s Day weekend, we have a missed opportunity, but it’s something to think about for next year!

On the second Sunday of Easter, I have come to have a special affection for the Gospel on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, which is the same every year, the story we read a short while ago.

Not all preachers feel this way about such stories that repeat annually; rightfully asking, what could I possibly say about this story that I haven’t already said before? For that reason, many preachers take this Sunday off (the cowards). But there is a reason some stories repeat every year; not to teach us something new, but to remind us of what we already know. The message of today’s story is that we are not the first to struggle with doubt, fear, and anxiety, because doubt and questioning are a necessary complement to faith and belief; and – in fact – there is a special blessing upon those of us who must believe without seeing.

Therefore, these stories we hear annually are like old friends, with whom we enjoy getting together and visiting, even if we have to listen to the same stories we have heard so many times over we can repeat them ourselves.

The gospel from the second Sunday of Easter is such a story, and yet, how could we not love it? It’s the story – according to the Gospel of John – of what happened to Jesus’ disciples after the women discovered his empty tomb. You would think that by this point in the story we would find them dancing in the streets. Instead, where we find them is hiding out in a room with the doors locked and the shades drawn, prisoners of their own doubt and fear.

Maybe, as they sat there in the dark, they were playing the “What if?” game, that we play at such times. “What if the women were deluded or deceived?” “What if grave robbers stole Jesus body?” “What if the authorities come for us next?” And perhaps the biggest “what if” of all; “What if it’s true and Jesus is really risen? What then?”

The author Frederick Buechner has a sermon on this text, “The Seeing Heart,” in which he says that he had a seminary professor tell him once that you really can’t hear what the stories in the Bible are saying until you hear them as stories about ourselves. Of this story in particular Buechner says,

“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 and 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.” (Frederick Buechner, The Seeing Heart, in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons)

And yet, the great thing about this story is that it is exactly in the midst of doubt and fear and anxiety that Jesus comes to them. He doesn’t break in, they don’t have to let him in; suddenly he’s there, speaking peace and breathing the Spirit upon them. “Jesus,” they must’ve said, “You scared the life out of us!” (Or is that into us?”)

Isn’t that the way it still happens? In the midst of our doubt and anxiety and fear, the world closes in, we wall ourselves off, and imagine the sum of our fears. Our course, most of it never happens, but it doesn’t matter whether it happens or not, because the fear is the debilitating part. But then, if we only take a deep breath or two, we discover – as they discovered – that Christ is with us, speaking peace, breathing life back into us.

Some may say, that’s all well and good, but I’m not one of those mystical persons; I mean, isn’t this the same as having an imaginary friend? At such times I don’t want an imaginary Jesus, I need someone real I can feel and hold onto. And – indeed – sometimes the “God role” is played by a family member or friend.

Not surprisingly, there was one among Jesus’ original disciples who felt this way. His name was Thomas. Because of this story we often call him, “Doubting Thomas.” When the other disciples reported, “We saw the master!” Thomas said, “Really? Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in them, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe.”

Eight days later, Jesus miraculously appeared again, and this time Thomas was on the scene. Never one to skirt the issues, Jesus said to Thomas: “Thomas: take your finger and examine my hands; take your hand and stick it in my side; don’t be unbelieving; believe!

The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas_by_CaravaggioThe story never actually says that Thomas did what Jesus invited him to do, as this painting by the great Italian artist Caravaggio, portrays. What the story says is, Thomas did believe, exclaiming, “My Master and My God.”

As you may have begun to suspect, this is not a story about Thomas, as much as it is about us. The most important thing in the whole story may be what happens next, when Jesus says: “Thomas, have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

My former teacher, Martin E Marty, once observed that this story is not about Good Friday or Easter Day or even the second Sunday of Easter. He says it is about opening up the story of Jesus to a new stage of faith and church life. Up until this point in the story, faith came in the face of Jesus’ physical presence. Here, in this word to Thomas, the Jesus of John’s Gospel sets us up theologically for an experience of God NOT based upon sight.  After all, just decades after these words were written, the last disciple died. Never again on earth would physical eyes or reaching hands certify Jesus presence. A few hundred or a few thousand believers would come to faith in Jesus’ lifetime; however, billions would come to faith in the centuries since, when Jesus would not – could not – be seen except figuratively in pictures, or scattered visions. So when Jesus blesses here, he occasions a blessing that still comes to us in Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas, to us sitting here today: “Blessed are those – blessed are you – who have not seen and yet come to believe. (Martin E. Marty, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, p. 398)

This is where we are today: in a world full of doubt, anxiety, and fear, there is no certainty, no proof, nothing to hold on to; only the testimony of the faithful. It is a leap of faith: not to understand in order that we might believe, but to believe, that we might understand. I wish I could tell you that you can have your money back if it doesn’t work out, but I can’t. I can only tell you what believers have said through the centuries, which is, that we find it true in our experience, and even then, not all the time.

Through the years I have found no better illustration than the one in John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany. In that novel the narrator, John, has a number of conversations with his unusual friend Owen Meany, about the meaning of belief.

In one scene at the schoolyard, Owen illustrates his faith in God by pointing to a gray granite statue of Mary Magdalene as twilight falls. When it becomes so dark the statue is no longer visible, Owen asked John if he knows that the statue is still there.  John says of course he knows. But Owen keeps pushing (To convey the unusual quality of Owen’s voice, Irving capitalizes his speech):

“YOU HAVE NO DOUBT THAT SHE’S THERE?” Owen nagged at me.

“Of course I have no doubt!” I said.

“BUT YOU CAN’T SEE HER—YOU COULD BE WRONG,” he said.

“No, I’m not wrong — she’s there, I know she’s there!” I yelled at him.

“YOU ABSOLUTELY KNOW SHE’S THERE — EVEN THOUGH YOU CAN’T SEE HER? he asked me.

“Yes,” I screamed.

“WELL, NOW YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT GOD,” said Owen Meany. “I CAN’T SEE HIM — BUT I ABSOLUTELY KNOW HE IS THERE!” (John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany, page 451). 

Such is our faith, the faith Jesus celebrates in this story, a faith that even once we have it, we sometimes struggle to keep. On this second Sunday of Easter, in the midst of doubt, fear, and anxiety, Christ is with us.

Amen.

 

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