April 27, 2014

The Reverend Philip Tierney
April 27, 2014

Today’s Gospel reading is one of the most familiar of the so-called post-resurrection narratives and certainly the most compelling for people of a more skeptical bent. It’s not that Thomas was the doubter that he has been dubbed throughout the centuries. I suspect that if any of the other disciples had been absent and missed the encounter with the Risen Christ that was described by John at the beginning of the passage; they would have been just as skeptical as Thomas. After all, it wasn’t as if Thomas demanded something that the others hadn’t already experienced. He just wanted to see Jesus alive for himself as they claimed to have done when they told him about their experience. And he was simply being forthright about it. That was one of the distinguishing and endearing attributes that Thomas had evidenced throughout the gospels. He was lacking in guile and pretty blunt about things. He was the one who said to Jesus, “Sure, let’s all go to Jerusalem and die,” when Jesus proposed to go there even though the religious leaders were reported to be out to get him. He was the one who, when Jesus said, “You know the way to where I am going,” responded, “We don’t even know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas was pragmatic and blunt and the patron saint of those who are similarly blunt and practical. He simply wanted proof.

Now, it may be a gift to be able to believe without concrete evidence, as Jesus implied when he said, “Blessed are those who do not need to see in order to believe,” but it is also a gift not to be gullible. Thomas was certainly not gullible, and he certainly did not go along with others just to get along with them. He was demanding something that some of us or those we know would like to have to bolster faith in the Risen Christ, namely, experience so that we can see for ourselves. How can we believe when we don’t have the prospect of experiencing Jesus alive with our own senses as the apostles did? Some of us might be able to accept the word of a kindred spirit like Thomas, and say, “Well, Thomas reacted as I would have. If he claimed to see Jesus, then, vicariously, I’ll take his word for it and I’ll believe too.” For many of us that doesn’t work though. How can we believe if we haven’t seen and remain skeptical about Jesus, his resurrection, and his identity?

Well, all I can say is what happened to me. When I was a child, I believed because my parents and other adults—especially priests and nuns—said that they believed Jesus lived, did the things he did, died, and rose again and that he is, therefore, God’s Son. As I grew older and embarked upon adolescence, I gradually shed some of the other things adults told me and stopped believing in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, the inherent infallibility of the U.S. government, and God—including the resurrection and divinity of Jesus. When it came to God my rejection of the ideas that adults had imparted to me came with more vehemence than the others, probably because I felt more disappointed and ambivalent about it. I wasn’t about to believe in God and His Son, Jesus, unless I saw for myself. In that way, now that I look back on it, I suppose that Thomas was a more credible apostle than the others, though I never thought about it before this. I went my way for several years after my Confirmation and let go of God and ideas about God.
I crossed paths with a family who ardently believed not only in God, but in Jesus, and to a degree that was alien to my background. For years they increasingly shared their faith with me. I resisted, but in a polite way. During that period of time, it wasn’t so much what they said they believed that began to wear away at my agnosticism about God and about Jesus. It was how they lived, the depth of their conviction, the reality even the dynamism of their prayer, and the quality of their acceptance of me—their love for God and for other people. Without any more direct experience of God, it was my direct experience of God through them that initially caused me to suspend my disbelief sufficiently to pray to invite the Risen Christ to take hold of me. That opened my mind, my heart and my spirit to a new series of experiences of Christ and His Spirit which changed my mind so that I was able to believe for myself what I had previously been told by others as a matter of dogma. It was experience, not physical experiences, but relational and spiritual experiences of the Risen Christ that changed me and eventually gave rise to my call to ordained ministry.

While we are not able to encounter the Risen Lord Jesus Christ in quite the same way the apostles, and especially Thomas, did, by seeing his body, hearing him speak with our ears, or touching his wounds, we can experience Him for ourselves in some of the same ways that they did. Notice what the gospel reading says about the context of their encounter with the Risen Christ.
Our reading for today tells us that they were gathered together when they experienced Christ among them. Fellowship… Sharing and caring.

It says that they were gathered together on a Sunday when Christ came to them. Worship and the Sacraments… Focus on God.

It says that when Jesus came He said, “Peace be with you.” Peace… Harmony.

The story tells us that Jesus said, “As God sent me, I send you.” Ministry….

He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit….

He said, “If you forgive the sins of any they will be forgiven…” Forgiveness….

We’re told that they spread the news of the resurrection. Infectious faith… Thomas to India

These are some of the ways in which Jesus, the Risen Christ, still comes to us to stir up our faith and give us spiritual vitality. Not coincidentally, these same elements are intended to be the character traits of a church. Now, in truth, many folks are persuaded that church is the very last place they might really encounter God or Jesus. Such folks seem to think that churches are places of dogmatism, hypocrisy, authoritarianism, judgementalism, manipulation, coercion; where appearances and conformity are the hallmarks of the community. But that’s not what a church, any church, this church, is intended by God to be.

Church is meant to be the place, the context, the community in which God becomes real and the risen Christ is seen, heard, touched and felt. Church is meant to be a place where people can be real, can be themselves, as Thomas was. Church is meant to be a community in which genuine fellowship, sincere worship, peace and conviviality pervade the atmosphere, Church is meant to be a community of forgiveness, mutual ministry, and the power of God’s Spirit flourish. Church is meant to be a community of infectious faith, which overflows into the wider community by doing good works of active Christ-like love.