Sunday Service April 23

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Easter 2, John
“Faithful Thomas”
© Paul A. Porter
April 23, 2017

There are more things every day that tell me I’m getting older. Last night I learned that my TV crush when I was a teenager, Erin Moran who played Joanie on Happy Days, had died. This week I was reminded how much longer it takes me to get over a hangover. Now listen closely: I’m referring to my Easter hangover. Maybe it’s the rollercoaster of emotions of Holy Week – the celebration of the Palm Sunday parade for Jesus, followed by the deceit and desertion of Maundy Thursday, the devastation of Good Friday and THEN the glory of Easter morning. Maybe I’m still trying to recover from an Easter sunrise service; maybe I’m just grumpy about all the dang green pollen and tree debris covering my car, my driveway, my deck, my rugs and my dogs. Maybe I’m jealous of the Sunday after Christmas where we all catch our collective breath. Because we have no pause today: the lectionary gives us the “simple” lesson of Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples alongside the equally “simple” topic of doubt.  Thanks.

So let’s set the stage: remember that in the first verses of John’s text we’re only a few hours removed from last week’s resurrection text. It is that first Sunday night and they are behind a locked door in the Upper Room. The shadow of the crucifixion is still on them and now they are trying to process the meaning of the empty tomb. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Jesus appears. We shout with Easter joy on Easter Sunday; I expect their shouts and gasps were Easter fear. The desertion and denial they exhibited around the arrest; the disappointment and disillusionment of their actions smothering them. The initial reaction at Jesus’ appearance must have been shock and fear and shame, heads hung. Certainly everyone would understand if Jesus were angry with them for their lack of faith; certainly Jesus would at least be disappointed in them, judging them weak and unworthy to carry the message forward.

But even if we didn’t know the outcome, after a few minutes of thought, we might have been able to predict what would happen, if we were to reflect on the whole of Jesus’ ministry. His response is not anger, nor disappointment, nor judgement. It is this: “Peace I give you”. The message of God’s steadfast love, of God’s desire to be in covenant with humanity, summed up with “my peace I give to you.” Despite all that has gone on and all that will happen in their unfolding ministry (just as our faith journeys continue to unfold), the fundamental message is (inner) peace when one is with Jesus and with God.

The story continues when one week later Jesus reappears “for” Thomas. For this, Thomas is dubbed “doubting Thomas”. If I were in Thomas’ shoes, I’d want to experience the resurrection just as my compatriots did. And it’s not if Thomas is the first to voice doubts or denial. Why do we get so hung up on Doubting Thomas but spend little time with Denying Peter during Jesus’ trial? Isn’t that the bigger misstep? What about Matthew and Luke’s Easter story, where Mary runs back to tell the disciples that Jesus has risen? Was their reaction acceptance? Nooooooo, they had to run back to the tomb to verify for themselves. And then there’s the stinging question “my God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” Words most often attributed to Jesus but were first uttered centuries before by the Psalmist (Psalm 22). Moses. The prophets, questioning their call as the voice of God. Job. The list goes on. Doubt is part and parcel of faith. The absence of faith is not doubt; it is fear. Thomas’ request was not one of fear; it wasn’t even of doubt. It was human: I want to see it. Show me. An honorary Missourian.

Even if it’s difficult for us to shed the “doubting Thomas” nickname, we can be reminded that John likely crafted this part of the story not to castigate anyone who has doubts but to uplift the listeners who were not months or years or decades after the crucifixion but generations after it. Those who could not have witnessed or even talked to one who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection appearances. This fledgling community of believers was dealing with persecution and sectarian conflict; just as Jesus’ initial words comforted the disciples, what we call the doubting Thomas story provided comfort and guidance for the people of the Way who could “only hear”. Thomas’ words and Jesus’ response helped them be faithful.

If we can take a step back, we can view this text as a turning point for the disciples: they are transformed from pre-crucifixion bystanders to post-crucifixion apostles, imbued with the Holy Spirit. It is for all practical purposes, John’s Pentecost story. The disciples, huddled in a secure room, soon become the evangelists, spreading the Good News, in spite of religious authorities that imprison them in the Acts text. Moving from clueless spectators to witnesses (and martyrs), from onlookers to evangelizers. Movement from fear and inadequacy and doubt to faith and action and proclamation.

This should speak to us today: a welcoming phrase used in many UCC congregations is “wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Sometimes that journey zig-zigs; sometimes it goes in a circle; sometimes it backtracks; sometimes it feel like treading water. What we should guard against is a journey that is stagnant, without any energy and without movement. What we should welcome is the daily challenge life brings as we are reminded of the long and winding road of the apostles.

Today’s readings show us the evolution of disciples’ understanding and faith and action. Perhaps it provides a roadmap for our own evolution in our own faith journey; at the foundation of that journey might be Jesus’ words “Peace I give you.” Words not meant to be a narcotic to numb us to our life’s problems; words not a tranquilizer to settle our ragged emotions; but words that provide the bedrock: the knowledge of God’s love and care for us as we march boldly, and stumble occasionally, on our path of discipleship and witness. Words that help us think straight: “Peace I give you.”

I leave you with the words of Rev. Kathryn Matthews, retired dean of the Amistad Chapel at the UCC national offices in Cleveland:

Whenever we’re afraid and hiding out, all locked up, God comes to us in the midst of our fear and says, “Peace be with you.” Whatever doubts churn in our minds, whatever sins trouble our consciences, whatever pain and worry bind us up, whatever walls we have put up or doors we have locked securely, God comes to us and says, “Peace be with you.” Whatever hunger and need we feel deep in our souls, God calls us to the table, feeds us well, and sends us out into the world to be justice and peace, salt and light, hope for the world. We can do it, if we keep our eyes open, our minds limber, and our hearts soft and willing to love.
As God sent Jesus, so God sends us, this day.”