Sunday, April 27, 2014

Phil Kniss: Doubting --- no, Data-Gathering --- Thomas

Easter 2: “Alleluia! Praise the God of Hope”
John 20:19-31

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A lot is at stake, apparently,
    on this matter of believing in Jesus’ resurrection.
    It seems, that the legitimacy of our faith
        hinges on whether or not we believe in Jesus’ resurrection.
    This issue of believing in the resurrection,
        or at least, certain ways of believing in the resurrection,
        is at the core of countless theological arguments
            past and present.
    It is how various heresies were sorted out over the centuries;
        heresies that often divided the church.
    And it is true. At lot is at stake.

More than we might think.
    Belief in regard to the resurrection is at the core of Christian faith.
    It’s hard for me to imagine someone
        refusing to affirm any sort of theology of resurrection,
        and still identify as Christian.
    So much of what we in church
        believe, teach, think, write, sing, pray, and create art about,
        is the good news of life in Christ made possible by resurrection.
    It’s apparently, quite important that we come to believe,
        and believe in the right way,
        about Jesus’ resurrection.

But there are many—many—who struggle with believing.
    At least, believing certain specific things about the resurrection.
So this story of Doubting Thomas has become a pivotal text for them.
    It’s either good news or bad news for them,
        depending how you interpret Thomas’ doubts.

    Either (option A)Thomas’ doubts were
        a moral weakness to overcome—
        and wasn’t it a shame
            the only way he could overcome his doubts,
            was to make Jesus prove it to him
                with a special appearance for his sake.
            For shame, for shame, Thomas!
        Or, (option B) Thomas’ doubts were important, even essential,
            and useful in bringing him to a deeper faith,
            and he shouldn’t be judged by his initial doubts,
                but by his actual faith.
    You’ve probably heard both those kinds of sermons.
        I’ve preached Option B. Here. More than once.

But this will be a decidedly different sermon.
    In fact, I’m going to take the focus completely off
        the individual believer (or doubter), at least for the moment.
    Not that individual believing doesn’t matter.
        It matters a great deal.
    But what I want to talk about is
        what sort of belief we should be aiming for,
        And how we prepare ourselves for this sort of belief.

Let’s look again at the Gospel story—
    John 20, if you want to follow along.
This continues the Easter story from last Sunday,
    that ended with verse 18.
    Peter and John, you recall, saw the empty tomb,
        then turned around and went home,
        while Mary lingered at the tomb,
            and had a personal encounter with the risen Jesus.
        Mary went back and told the rest of the disciples
            what she had seen, and what Jesus had said.

    Now, in vv. 19-20, the disciples are all huddled together,
        behind locked doors, fearing for their lives,
            not knowing when they might be discovered.
        But Jesus suddenly showed up among them.
            And said, “Peace be with you.”

    That’s a good thing.
    If you’re going to bust into a room
        where people are hiding, and shaking for fear
            that at any moment someone’s going to bust into the room,
        it’s a good idea to start with “Peace be with you.”

    Then Jesus showed them—all these disciples
        who had a hard time believing what they were seeing—
        he showed them his hands and his side.
    And then they rejoiced, because they saw and believed.

    Remember, they had already heard Mary’s report,
        that she found an empty tomb,
        and then saw, and spoke to, the risen Jesus,
            who sent them all a message through Mary.
    But now . . . now, they saw for themselves, and believed.

    All except Thomas,
        who had to run to the store for fish and bread . . . or something.
        Who knows why he was gone?
    But when he got back, they all ran up to him,
        “You should’ve been here, Thomas!
            We have seen the Lord.”
        The precise phrase Mary used, in her report to them all,
            “I have seen the Lord.”

        And I suspect Thomas’ response was the same
            as all the disciples when Mary had said it.
            Something to the effect of, “Uh-huh . . .”
        They took in the information,
            but could not really wrap their minds and hearts around it.

        Thomas said “I need to see it for myself.”  V. 25.
            Unless it’s my eyes and hands,
                that see him and touch him,
                it’s just too much to believe.
            Thomas was a thinking person.
                He was less a doubter, than he was a data-gatherer.
    A week later, Thomas got what he needed. Vv. 26-28.
        Jesus appeared among them again, and said, for the third time,
            “Peace be with you.”
        Then he turned to Thomas, and said to him,
            “Look. Touch. Believe.”
        And Thomas, without touching, cried out, v.
            “My Lord and my God!”
        And Jesus said, “You have seen me, and believed.”
            Blessed are those who don’t see me, and still believe.
            In other words, generations like ours,
                are especially blessed because we are still
                    given the gift of faith,
                even without being eye-witnesses.

I have read this passage over and over,
    forward and backward,
    and I just can’t a shred of evidence,
        to support the centuries of church tradition
        that make Thomas a character who is weak in faith,
        or in whom Jesus is in any way displeased,
        or deserves a derogatory nickname like “Doubting Thomas.”

All the disciples, all of them,
    first heard the words of an eye-witness,
        “We have seen the Lord,”
        but still remained fearful and skeptical.
All the disciples, all of them,
    were then later blessed with an appearance by Jesus,
        who showed them his wounded hands and side,
        and were invited to believe.
The parallels between Jesus’ appearance to the 11,
    and later to Thomas,
    are nearly identical.
The only difference . . . was timing.

For some reason,
    we have taken this beautiful story
        that tells of Jesus lovingly taking action
        to reveal himself to all of his followers,
    and we shifted the focus to Thomas,
        and made it into a moralistic lesson
        that we should not be like Thomas,
        that we should never let a doubt enter our mind,
            but always believe,
            and not be concerned about the evidence.

But this story is not really about Thomas or us.
    This story is about God’s action through the Risen Christ,
        to move in, with love and grace, taking initiative
            to restore and reconcile all Jesus’ followers,
            all of whom need to be forgiven, and healed,
            and loved back into a covenant relationship with him.

Think about the bigger picture here.
    Jesus had every right to just lay into his disciples,
        lambaste them for their faithlessness.
    Jesus spent two years preparing them for their moment of testing.
    He preached about the demands of the kingdom,
        about taking up their cross and following,
        about denying themself,
        about laying down their lives.
    He had predicted his suffering and death.
        He pleaded with them, as his closest friends,
            to watch and pray and stay strong . . .
         And they all . . . ran.

    Every last one of them deserted.
    And now, even after his resurrection,
        they were hiding their faces behind locked doors.
    But when Jesus showed up,
        instead of yelling and turning over tables,
        like he did in the temple to some other faithless people,
        he held out his arms and said, “Peace be with you.”
    He breathed on them, gifted them with the Holy Spirit,
        and said again, “Peace be with you.”
    And when he returned a second time to meet Thomas,
        as a bonus act of grace,
        he said the third time, “Peace be with you.”

This is a story of the amazing generosity of Jesus,
    in the face of human frailty.

Jesus gave to each one of his disciples
    exactly what they needed to come to faith.
When he appeared to Mary in the Garden,
    he called her by name, “Mary.”
When he first appeared to his disciples,
    he showed them his hands and side,
    and pronounced peace.
And when Thomas missed out on what the other disciples got,
    Jesus came back a second time just for Thomas.
    Jesus wanted nothing of his followers except deep and genuine trust.
        Faith. Trust. Belief.

In v. 27 of John 20, Jesus says to Thomas,
    “Do not doubt but believe.”
        But there’s a better way to translate that.
    When we say “believe,”
        we usually mean an intellectual acceptance of a truth.
    But Jesus wasn’t talking about what goes on in the head.
        In the original Greek, it says, literally,
            “Do not be faithless, but faithful.”
        Faith in Jesus is about active trust in Jesus,
            trust in his person, his teaching, his mission, his character.

    You see, before these tragically dark last few days,
        the disciples of Jesus were still expecting
            something quite different out of Jesus the Messiah.
    They didn’t see how the new King of Jerusalem
        could possibly end up on the throne of David,
        by letting himself be shamed and crucified as a criminal.
    They did trust in Jesus, right up until the cross.
        But at the point of the cross,
            they clearly faltered and failed.
            And understandably so,
                if they expected the kind of Messiah
                every one else expected.

    This is Jesus’ attempt to restore them
        to his community of faith-ful followers.
    To try again to introduce them to the Ruler
        of the Peaceable Kingdom of God,
        a kingdom that would not be established by the sword,
            but by the power of radical, self-emptying love.

    Jesus was seeking followers willing to re-invest
        in the true Kingdom rule of Jesus.
    Jesus needed followers who would trust again, but in a new way.
        Who would have faith in what he was wanting to accomplish,
            who would work with him, and not against him.

That’s really what is at stake for Jesus here
    in the post-resurrection appearances.
The most burning question, the ultimate question, is not,
    “Thomas, and Peter and James and Mary and everybody,
        do you intellectually affirm that the body you see before you now,
        is one and the same body that was buried three days ago?
        Are you willing to sign on the dotted line
            that you believe, in your mind,
            in my literal, bodily resurrection?”

It was more like, “Do you trust me now?”
To loosely paraphrase,
    “Here I am, people. See my wounds,
        see my hands and feet and side.
        I’m here. I’m alive. Deal with it.
    Now, tell me this, because this is what I really care about.
        Do you trust me now?
        Do you have faith in me now?
        Can I count on your undying allegiance to my kingdom,
            now that I am with you in a different way?
        Do you still believe what I was teaching you all along,
            and is it starting to connect with you?
        Thomas, and the rest of you,
            be full of faith in me.
            Be faith-ful.
            Be trusting.”

I believe the deepest desire of Jesus for Thomas and the others,
    was that they would trust him, completely.
    Because the future would be even more uncertain,
        more demanding, and more dangerous,
        than what they had been through already.

Jesus wanted them to trust him.
    Trust that he knew what God wanted of them,
        that he would be with them
            in a different way from here on out,
            but they shouldn’t be afraid.
        They should be at peace.
    How gratifying to Jesus it must have been
        to hear Thomas’ resounding statement of trust,
        “My Lord and my God!”

If we take seriously the Gospel story,
    if we understand the real situation the disciples were facing here,
    it puts all this doubt and belief into perspective.
    This is far more about the loyalty and trust aspect of faith,
        than about intellectual assent to a rational proposition.

Contrary to what we sometimes imply,
    God isn’t trying to make it difficult for us to have faith.
    God isn’t playing a cruel game of hide and seek.
        If some of us have a hard time finding faith,
            we’re probably looking in the wrong places.
    God is generous and gracious.
    God is ready to provide whatever we need for faith.

    Some of us are like Thomas, God bless us.
        We are persistent seekers.
        We are dogged pursuers of the truth.
        We’re not easily satisfied with pat answers.
    The message of today’s Gospel story is that God honors that.
        And in due time, God will provide what we need for faith.
    Some of may be more like Peter,
        a passionate disciple, who lives more by the heart than the head.
    God honors that.
    God will provide what we need for faith.

But the faith God is most pleased with,
    is the faith that says,
    even with our unanswered questions,
        we trust you enough to follow you.
        We’ll go where you go.
            You are all we have.
            You give us what we need.
            Our lives are in your hands, O Lord,
                our lives are in your hands.

Let’s turn to STJ 29, and sing our faith out!

—Phil Kniss, April 27, 2014

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