The heart of the universe is calling our name

File:Sagrada Familia, interior (21) (31130118082).jpg

This message was given on the Sunday after Easter.  The text was John 20:19-31, telling of Jesus’ appearance to his followers on Sunday evening and, because Thomas was absent and refused to accept the testimony of the others, Jesus’ appearance the subsequent Sunday evening when Thomas was present.  But the message also looks back to the reading from Easter Sunday, John 20:1-18, concerning the discovery of the empty tomb and Jesus’ encounter with Mary.

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Before I begin this morning, it’s important to say that it’s hard to talk about anything in John’s Gospel without talking about everything.  The themes of John’s Gospel weave in and out, forming an amazing tapestry. What happens at the end is connected to the beginning and flows through everything in between.  This is not a collection of stories about Jesus, but a single, large, wondrous canvas seeking to portray for us the face of the infinite.

The open door

The text we have before us this morning from the Gospel of John is the second half of the story we began to read last Sunday on Easter morning, so I want to go back a bit and talk about what has already happened.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is given a royal burial.  Joseph of Arimathea gets permission from Pilate to take up the body of Jesus, and Nicodemus brings a hundred pounds of a perfumed oil with which to anoint the body. Remember the small jar that Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, used to anoint Jesus’ feet?  It was worth a year’s wages.   Nicodemus has a hundred pounds!  This is a burial fit for a king!

So, Jesus receives a royal burial in a new tomb in a garden. (On Good Friday, we mentioned the significance of John calling this a ‘garden’, because the biblical story begins in a garden.)  This burial happens on Friday before sunset.  Now, at Sunday dawn, while everyone is still “in the dark” about Jesus, Mary comes to the tomb.  John wants us to just focus on Mary.  He has pared away all the other elements of the story.  She has not brought spices, there are no other women, there is just Mary and the open tomb.

There is something here we struggle to put into words.  John is always aware there is a surface meaning to his narrative and a deeper one; how shall we articulate that deeper reality this moment represents?  Mary is standing alone before the mystery at the heart of the universe: here where death reigns, a door stands open.  What does she see?

By stripping away all the other elements, John is placing each of us in that garden facing the majesty and mystery of the cosmos.  We each stand before that open door.  We each stand before the silence.  We each stand before the darkness of the tomb.  And what do we see?

Matthew, Mark and Luke all choose to say that the stone was ‘rolled’ away – and that is the way these tombs are built.  They carve out a cave and provide a small opening wih a large, wheel-shaped stone that rolls into a slot to seal the tomb.  John, however, says the stone was ‘lifted’.  No words are used casually in John, and this word ‘lifted’ is the word John used at the beginning of his Gospel when John the Baptist says of Jesus, Here is the Lamb of God who takes away (literally, ‘lifts away’)the sin of the world!

Something has been lifted off the back of human existence. The shame of all humanity has been lifted. The shroud of death is lifted. Our sins are lifted. The fierce grip of death has been broken.  The tears that define us are wiped away.  The new wine of the wedding feast stands ready.  The lame walk.  The blind see.

At the heart of the universe is Life.  God is the open door, the new creation, the font of grace, the imperishable Life.

Only the ordinary

Something happens as Mary stands there before the tomb.  Something happens as we stand there before the face of the eternal.

But then we are pulled back to the ordinary.  Mary doesn’t “see” what stands before her.  She doesn’t understand.  She runs to Peter and the beloved disciple saying: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  It is, for Mary, as it was for Nicodemus in the night.  When Nicodemus heard Jesus say that he must be born anew, he was stuck in the ordinary.  He could only imagine a physical birth.  He knew there was something deep and profound in Jesus, he was groping towards that truth, but then his mind pulled him back to earth.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  In the same way here, Mary falls back into the ordinary; the physical body of Jesus has been removed: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

John doesn’t tell us who she thinks has taken the body.  Presumably she thinks it is the leadership that arranged for Jesus’ death, but that information would lead us away from the mystery into the realm of the ordinary, so John doesn’t distract us with that information.  We just have Mary and the lifted stone and the mystery.

So Mary sees the stone lifted but falls back onto the ordinary.  She goes to Peter and the other disciple and they race to the tomb. The beloved disciple is portrayed as quicker afoot – and quicker to see and believe – but Peter is given his due as the first one into the empty tomb.  They find the linen wrappings, but John tells us they do not yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.

“Why are you weeping?”

After the two men leave, Mary remains.  She is weeping.  The body is missing.  Jesus has been robbed of the possibility of resurrection on that final day when all the dead are raised.  The obligation to bury the dead is supreme in the ancient world because the bones provide the frame God uses for the resurrection.  Your bones retain your identity, your personality, your story. The idea of scattering the bones of your conquered enemy is to destroy them completely, so they cannot rise at the resurrection.  Without the bones there is no future.

Without the bones there is no future.  Mary is stuck in the ordinary.

Then Mary bends to look into the tomb and, through her tears, sees two angels who ask the penetrating question: “Woman, why are you weeping?”

Questions in John’s Gospel are meant to push us towards insight.  And this is a profound question: “Why are you weeping?”   It is not just a question posed to Mary; it is posed to us all.  It is not a question about the natural human emotion of grief.  It is an existential question about our understanding of the world.

Is Mary weeping because she has lost a friend and teacher?  Does she not understand who Jesus is?  Does she not understand that he is the embodiment of the eternal word? Does she does not understand that he is the source and goal of all life?  (He is “the way, the truth and the life.”)  Does she not understand that all things belong to Life?

Do we not understand the power of life that vibrates through all things?  Do we not understand that matter itself is, rather literally, vibrating energy.  All around us the universe pulses with life.  Go, stand outside, and look.  The grass, the ground beneath it, the trees above it, the air around it – it all vibrates with life.)

“All things came into being through him,”says John at the beginning of his Gospel, “and without him nothing was made.”  “In him was life and the life was the light of all people.”  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” “We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only son of the Father.” 

Do we not see?

“What are you looking for?” 

Mary answers the angels in a very mundane way: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  She is stuck, like Nicodemus, on the surface of things.  And so she does not recognize Jesus until he calls her name.

She doesn’t realize the risen Christ is present.  She imagines she is talking to a gardener.  And Jesus asks the same double-edged question, “Woman, why are you weeping?”But then Jesus adds: “Whom are you looking for?”

This question takes us back to the beginning of John’s Gospel and the very first words Jesus speaks: two disciples of John the Baptist hear him say that Jesus is the Lamb of God, (the lamb of God who liftsaway the sin of the world) and they follow him.  Jesus turns and asks them: “what are you looking for?”

This is the fundamental human question.  “What do you seek?”  “What are you looking for?”  “Towards what is your life oriented?”  “What path are you following?”  And here, in the garden, Jesus changes the question to “Whom do you seek?”  It’s not a thing we need; it’s a person, a presence, a life.

But Mary is still stuck in the ordinary, and so she answers,“Sir, if you have carried him away [if you have liftedhim!], tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  She is stuck in the literal that cannot imagine a birth from above. She is stuck in the literal that cannot see how water is transformed into wine or tears into joy.  She is stuck in the literal that cannot understand a blind man seeing or a lame man walking. She is stuck in the literal that cannot imagine that there is anything more in the feeding of the five thousand than five thousand full bellies.  She doesn’t see the bread of life and the healing of the world.

Outside the tomb, Mary knows only her grief, her loss, the cruelty of events, the limits of the ordinary, the finality of death.  She does not see the divine presence; she does not see a world radiant with life – until Jesus calls her name.

“Mary”

What is it that we hope happens in worship?   Why do we persist in reading these words and telling these stories and helping them connect with our lives?  Because the heart of the universe is calling our name.  We are here to see the divine presence; the power, the life that vibrates through all existence.  We want the world to see grace, to see mercy cast upon the world like a sower sowing seed. We want all creation to see the extravagance of God, to taste the bounty of God.  We want all existence to see, even in the darkest days, that we are immersed in light.

We come to hear God call our name.

This is not like school where we are shrinking down in our seats hoping not to get called upon. This is not like a parent calling for us to do some chore or account for some wrong.  This is the most gentle of kisses.  It is the calling of our name that brings us back into the arms of love. It is the calling of our name that fills our hearts with light and life.

“Mary,” says Jesus. Jesus speaks her name, and immediately she is drawn into Christ.

Thomas

So now it is evening and Jesus appears and shows himself.  He speaks peace.  He brings peace.  He conveys peace.  And he breathes out his Spirit upon his followers.  They are sent.  They are now in the world as the living presence of Jesus.  They are now light and life in the world.  They are grace and mercy.  They are truth and compassion.  They are fidelity and hope.

They are not an army sent to conquer the world.  They are the voice sent to speak every name.

But Thomas is not there. He did not see the hands.  He did not hear the word of peace.  He did not feel the breath of God.  He is bound in the realm of the ordinary.  And how can he show allegiance to light and life when he cannot see it.  How can he show allegiance to grace and peace when all he sees is the shame and sorrow of the cross? How can he show allegiance to loving one another when he sees only brutality and suffering?  How can he live the life that is eternal when he sees only death?

Thomas was not there. But Jesus does not leave him behind. Jesus comes again the next Sunday. He speaks the word of peace.  And then he turns to Thomas.  He offers his hands and his side.  He summons him to not be faithless, but faithful.  And Thomas hears his name.  He sees.  He yields his life.  He recognizes his risen lord and the face of the divine.

Us

We are here to see the wounded hands in the bread.  We are here to stand before the great mystery of existence.  We are here to bend and look into the empty tomb and answer the questions why we weep and what we seek.  We are here to see that all existence radiates with grace and life. We are here to hear the voice of the divine call our name.

Amen

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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sagrada_Familia,_interior_(21)_(31130118082).jpgRichard Mortel from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Do not be faithless

File:The confession of Saint Thomas (icon).jpgWatching for the Morning of April 8, 2018

Year B

The Second Sunday of Easter

Thomas dominates the readings on Sunday – not a story of intellectual doubt, but a story of allegiance and fidelity. None of us understands what happened to Jesus, but will we be faithful to him?

So the first reading tells us of that early faithful community that held all things in common. They “loved one another”; they showed fidelity to one another as members of a common household. We don’t divide up the refrigerator in our homes to say this food belongs to Dad and this to Mom, and the kids can eat what’s on the bottom shelf, as if we were strangers rooming together in college. Neither did those first followers of Jesus. They lived the new creation. They lived the Spirit. They lived and heralded the reign of God that Jesus brought.

The psalm will sing of the goodness “when kindred live together in unity.” It is the shape of the world before Cain rose up against Abel or Jacob stole Esau’s blessing. It is the world of the Good Samaritan and the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. It is the world of those to whom it will be said, “As you did it to the last of these you did it to me.”

The author of 1 John will speak of “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” and the ‘fellowship’ it creates. ‘Fellowship’ is that wonderful word, ‘koinonia’, that gets used in the New Testament to speak of ‘fellowship’ with God, ‘partnership’ (NIV) in the gospel, and the ‘contribution’ Paul gathers for the saints suffering from famine in Judea. It is the ‘communion’ in Paul’s benediction: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you,” and the ‘sharing’ or ‘participation’ in the body and blood of Christ that happens in the cup and bread. Such fellowship isn’t coffee and donuts after church, but the mutual care and support of lives bound together in and with Christ.

And so we come to Thomas. What happens to those who have not shared in the apostolic vision of the risen Christ? Will they show faithfulness? Will the testimony of others be enough to bind them to Christ and the community? “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet are faithful.”

The translation of Jesus’ word to Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe,” is misleading to modern ears where doubt and belief concern cognitive assent. The Greek is better translated as “Do not be faithless but faithful.”

The Prayer for April 8, 2018

Gracious Lord Jesus,
in your mercy you did not leave Thomas in his unbelief,
but came to him, revealing your hands and your side,
and calling him into faith.
So come to us wherever we are in doubt and uncertainty
and by your word reveal yourself to us anew as our living Lord,
who with the Father and Holy Spirit lives and reigns,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for April 8, 2018

First Reading: Acts 4:32-35
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” – The author of Luke-Acts, commonly called Luke, summarizes the life of the first Christian community as a household, sharing goods and providing for one another. It represents a foretaste of the messianic age when all things are made new.

Psalmody: Psalm 133
“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” – A psalm of ascents sung as the community went up to Jerusalem for one of the annual pilgrimage festivals. A faithful people of God as a blessing upon the world.

Second Reading: 1 John 1:1-2:2
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”
– The author testifies to what they have seen and heard in Jesus – and to the fellowship they have with the Father, the Son, and one another.

Gospel: John 20:19-31
“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.” – Jesus appears to his followers on Easter Evening and commissions them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, then appears again, the following Sunday, to summon Thomas into faithfulness.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe_confession_of_Saint_Thomas_(icon).jpg  Dionisius [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Drinking deeply

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Watching for the morning of April 23

Year A

The Second Sunday of Easter

Thomas takes center stage every year on the Sunday after Easter. But before he appears, there is the risen Jesus speaking peace to his shaken community, and breathing on them his Holy Spirit.

Years and years of hearing the story of the resurrection makes it hard to remember how fearful those days were for the followers of Jesus. All hope had been shattered. And if the Romans crucified Jesus, they were certain to aim also at his inner circle. We think it was an easy transition from fear to joy, but it was not. It required the deep breath of the Spirit.

The Thomas narrative begins with Jesus bringing peace and filling his followers with his Spirit. Having missed that moment, who can blame Thomas? How could we expect otherwise, being the hard-headed realist he was. When Jesus decided to go to back to Judea at the death of Lazarus, it was Thomas who shrugged his shoulders and said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

How can we expect anything other than disbelief for one who was not there to drink deeply of the Spirit? It is why Jesus declares as honorable those who show allegiance without seeing.

Sunday we hear Peter’s Pentecost message bearing witness to the resurrection. We hear the psalmist sing the prayer that echoes profoundly of Jesus: “you do not give me up to Sheol” and join in saying, “You show me the path of life.” And we savor the words at the opening of that wonderful exploration of baptism in 1 Peter where the author writes: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.”

With all these words, we hear the word of peace and breathe in this breath of God. And so we are made ready to see the risen Christ among us and show faithfulness to his task: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

The Prayer for April 23, 2017

Gracious God,
in the night of his resurrection,
Jesus breathed your Holy Spirit upon his followers
and sent them into the world.
Renew in us your Holy Spirit
that, in the joy and freedom of Christ risen from the dead,
we may bear faithful witness to your truth and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for April 23, 2017

First Reading: Acts 2:14a, 22-32
“This man… you crucified … But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” – Peter bears witness to the crowds at Pentecost who have been drawn by the sound of a mighty rushing wind.

Psalmody: Psalm 16
“You do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.” – a hymn of praise and trust in which the first witnesses of the resurrection found a prophetic word pointing to Jesus’ resurrection.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 1:3-9
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” –
a rich, beautiful homily on baptism offering a word of encouragement to the Christian community.

Gospel: John 20:19-31
“Then [Jesus] 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.” – Jesus appears to his followers on Easter Evening and commissions them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, then appears again, the following Sunday, to summon Thomas into faith.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Silos-Duda.jpg

Faithful

File:Light in darkness foto di L. Galletti.JPG

Sunday Evening

John 20:19-31

26A 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.” 27Then 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.”

I wish it had not been translated “Do not doubt.” The Greek word uses the negative prefix ‘a’ (as we see in the word ‘apathetic’, ‘a-’, ‘without’, ‘pathos’, ‘compassion’) with the word for faith. “Do not be without faith but with faith.” Or, better, considering the relational content of the word ‘faith’: “Do not be faithless but faithful.”

The issue here is not the modern, rational concern for what is possible within the laws of physics and human experience. The issue is Thomas’ allegiance to Jesus as the face of God, to Jesus as the bread of life, the living water, the new wine, the light of the world. Crucifixion seems to belie all that.

It is no small thing to show allegiance to someone who was crucified, condemned as the ancient equivalent of a terrorist. Would you show allegiance to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Remember what happened to his friends?

This is why the disciples are in hiding. It is why the women went to the tomb. For the men to go would have been an act of public allegiance to a condemned insurrectionist. But women could pass freely. It was risky for Peter to go to the tomb on Mary’s witness; the safe thing was to stay in hiding.

So Thomas needs something more than the disciples’ word about a shared vision if he is going to risk his life in a show of allegiance to this crucified Jesus. He needs his own encounter with the living Lord.

Thomas is not alone. We, too, need more than the apostolic witness. We need to see something of the risen Lord. We need to see something of his mercy. We need to see something of his love. We need to hear his voice. We need to experience his life.

The Biblical witness, the report of the first believers, is able to do this – but it is not done by the dry words on a page: it happens when the words of Jesus are lived and spoken to us.

The followers of Jesus are sent with a news that does goodness, that releases captives, opens eyes, heals lives, forgives sins. “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.”

There are not sent with just words – they are sent with the Spirit and the authority to forgive. They are sent to do the message. They are sent to be the word of grace and mercy. They are sent to shine forth the light that darkness cannot overcome.

 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALight_in_darkness_foto_di_L._Galletti.JPG  By Galletti Luigi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Paradigm shift

File:Solar-system.png

Watching for the Morning of April 3, 2016

Year C

The Second Sunday of Easter

The shock and awe of the first Easter morning gives way to celebration and even triumph as the apostles preach and John of Patmos exults in the risen Christ. The psalm celebrates the wondrous work of God: “This is the LORD’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” And the followers of Jesus proclaim his resurrection to Thomas.

But in the texts lies also the tension between faith and unbelief. The Jerusalem leaders seek to silence the apostolic witness, and Thomas will not trust the testimony of those who have seen and heard.

When you look carefully at the Biblical record there is a lot of uncertainty. The apostles in Luke don’t believe the women returning from the tomb (24:11). The disciples on the road to Emmaus are unable to comprehend what has happened (24:25). and when Jesus appears to the whole community there respond with a mix of joy and disbelief (24:41). At the climactic scene in Matthew when Jesus ascends into the heavens, the evangelist records: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (28:17). And, of course, Mark ends his Gospel with the women in fear and silence (16:8).

The Easter message is not a simple one. No one expected the story to go like this. It takes some time to get their minds around it. It takes some time to get their hearts around it. This is far more than a spectacular comeback from a nearly defeated team. This asks us to recognize a different narrative of God and the world. The story is not about a world ending in a general resurrection and judgment with the righteous blessed and the wicked condemned. The story is about the new creation invading this world of tears and summoning us to live that new creation now. It is not a story of God judging the world but healing it.

It’s not easy to change one’s picture of God and the world. It takes some time – and the breath of the Spirit – and some searching of scripture – a rereading of the Biblical story – but, in the end, there is Jesus showing us his wounds and inviting us to join the story.  Thomas Kuhn called it a paradigm shift.* When you recognize that the earth goes around the sun, the world will never look the same.

The Prayer for April 3, 2016

Gracious Lord Jesus,
in your mercy you did not leave Thomas in his unbelief,
but came to him, revealing your hands and your side,
and calling him into faith.
So come to us wherever we are in our doubt and uncertainty
and by your word reveal yourself to us anew as our living Lord,
who with the Father and Holy Spirit you live and reign,
one God, now and forever

The Texts for April 3, 2016

First Reading: Acts 5:21b-32 (appointed: 5:27-32)
“We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” – Having been arrested for saying that God had raised Jesus (and thus condemning the rulers for condemning him), the apostles are released from prison by an angel and told to return to the temple to preach. There they are arrested again and brought before the ruling council.

Psalmody: Psalm 118:14-16, 22-23, 26-27, 29 (appointed: Psalm 118:14-29)
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” – We continue in this foundational psalm that was so influential for the early Christian community in interpreting what happened to Jesus. The psalm celebrates the king, returning in triumph from an unexpected victory.

Second Reading: Revelation 1:4-8
“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come… and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
– The opening salutation of the Book of Revelation (written in the form of a letter).

Gospel: John 20:19-31
“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.” – Jesus appears to his followers on Easter Evening and commissions them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, then appears again, the following Sunday, to summon Thomas into faithfulness.

 

*Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASolar-system.png  By Dave Jarvis (http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One heart

Watching for the Morning of April 12, 2015

Year B

The Second Sunday of Easter

File:Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles.jpgThis second Sunday in the Easter season always takes us to the story of Thomas. He was absent that first Easter evening when Jesus appeared to his followers as they hid behind locked doors. Thomas becomes an example of those who have not seen the risen Jesus and must decide whether to trust the apostolic witness.

We tend to hear this as an individual struggle between doubt and faith. And because we tend to hear faith as believing ideas rather than trusting a person, we often miss that the drama in this narrative is not only the relationship between Thomas and Jesus, but between Thomas and the community of believers. It’s not simply that he doesn’t believe Jesus has been raised – he doesn’t trust them. He doesn’t accept their testimony.

We tend to think it as honorable to want to see for ourselves. It’s good to see proof, to not follow the crowd. But this is not a nameless crowd; these are sisters and brothers in Christ. Even we understand that allegiance to family involves trusting what they tell us.

Thomas is not wrestling with an intellectual problem; he is wrestling with whether or not he is part of this community.

Though we think of this as the story of “Doubting Thomas”, this theme of the community is present at the beginning of the narrative when Jesus speaks his word that brings peace, and breathes on them the Holy Spirit/Breath of God. They are commissioned to exercise the authority of Jesus to declare the forgiveness of sins.

The other texts assigned in this year point us towards this notion of community. The first reading from Acts tells us the believers “were of one heart and soul” and contains the familiar words “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

And our psalm on Sunday declares, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” The word ‘kindred’ may not have quite the same emotional impact as ‘brothers’ (and sisters), but it is a psalm of ascent, a communal song of the believing community as they journey to Jerusalem for worship. It conveys the vision of a world enriched and enlivened by a deep and fundamental harmony in God.

In this same vein, 1 John speaks of our ‘fellowship’ with the Father and the Son and with one another, echoing all the language and imagery in John’s gospel about Jesus abiding in the Father and he and the Father abiding in us.

So the texts this year point us not towards Thomas’ personal struggle to believe, but to the work of God to form a community shaped and govern by God’s Spirit – a community bound together in love, a community shaped by the one who washes feet.

The Prayer for April 12, 2015

Gracious God, in the night of his resurrection,
Jesus breathed your Holy Spirit upon his followers
and sent them into the world.
Renew in us your Holy Spirit
that, in the joy and freedom of Christ risen from the dead,
we may bear faithful witness to your truth and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for April 12, 2015

First Reading: Acts 4:32-35
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” – The author of Luke-Acts, commonly called Luke, summarizes the life of the first Christian community as a household, sharing goods and providing for one another. It represents a foretaste of the messianic age when all things are made new.

Psalmody: Psalm 133
“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” – A psalm of ascents sung as the community went up to Jerusalem for one of the annual pilgrimage festivals. A faithful people of God as a blessing upon the world.

Second Reading: 1 John 1:1-2:2
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”
– The author testifies to what they have seen and heard in Jesus – and to the fellowship they have with the Father, the Son, and one another.

Gospel: John 20:19-31
“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.” – Jesus appears to his followers on Easter Evening and commissions them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, then appears again, the following Sunday, to summon Thomas into faithfulness.

 

Image credit: Duccio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My Lord and my God

Saturday

John 20

File:Santo Domingo de Silos Relief 092.jpg27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.

This translation “put your finger here” is perfectly fine, but I think it misses something sweet and important in the text. The Greek word is usually translated ‘carry’ or ‘bring’, suggesting something more like “Bring your finger here.” “Bring that here” can be no less a harsh command than “put it here”, but here the word ‘bring’ seems to involve the drawing near of the person, not just the object – it is Thomas who is being called to Jesus, not just his finger.

In the same way, Jesus doesn’t say, “reach out your hand” but “bring your hand and put it in my side.” Thomas is being drawn to Jesus; he is not being subjected to proofs. This encounter with Jesus is, after all, not an exercise in rational thought; it is a summons to trust.

It is a shame we translate the Greek words here as ‘doubt’ and ‘believe’. I cannot help but think our modern sense of those words distorts the message of the text. The word translated ‘doubt’ is the negative prefix ‘a’ with the word for faith. It works like the pair of words moral and amoral. The words here are ‘with faith’ and ‘without faith’, faithful and faithless. The issue is not whether God can raise the dead. The issue is whether the testimony of the disciples will be trusted – whether the voice of Jesus carried into the world by his followers will be trusted. Thomas didn’t trust it.

It is no small thing to refuse the message spoken from God through his agents. It is like the president of Botswana saying to the U.S. Ambassador, I won’t trust a thing you say unless your president shows up and tells me himself. Such a response is likely to antagonize the president. In the ancient world it would make the king your enemy. It is an affront, a curt rejection of the king’s appointed representative and so a rejection of the king.

But Jesus responds with grace, not wrath. He comes for Thomas, not to defend his pride. He comes to draw Thomas to himself, not to elevate himself. He comes that Thomas may ‘see’; see not just the scars, see not just that this Jesus is the same Jesus he had known, but to see the truth of Jesus. See like Nicodemus should have seen. See like the blind man or the woman at the well. See the divine glory present to the world. See the way and the truth and the life.

And through the word of Jesus Thomas does see, for he falls before Jesus declaring “My Lord and my God.”

These are not abstract concepts; they are personal. Thomas speaks not of ideas but a relationship: “My lord and my God.” He is no longer faithless; he is faithful.

Jesus does not come for each of us as he came for Thomas; we do not get to see the hands and the side. Yet still he comes. In the witness of the first believers. In the witness of the believing community. In narratives like this. Jesus comes. Jesus speaks. Jesus calls us into faithfulness – and as for Thomas so for us. His presence bears fruit. His word draws forth faith. And we acclaim “My Lord and my God.”

Christ came to meet him

Thursday

John 20

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The risen Jesus appears to the eleven (with Thomas) on the eighth day

24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

If the verse that Jesus came and stood among them and spoke peace is one of the sweetest verses in scripture, this is one of the saddest.  In the moment when Christ came, in the moment when he spoke peace, in the moment when he poured out his Spirit, in the moment when their lives were forever transformed, Thomas was not with them. He missed it.

There was a day my final year of seminary that I tried to cut chapel. I was taking a crushing load of classes and thought I desperately needed those 40 minutes to study. My apartment was one of the few on the hill among the main campus buildings. The students and faculty streamed past it everyday, down an alley towards the old gymnasium we were using as a chapel. This particular day I tried to sneak off from the crowd and slip into my building. But just as I opened the door, one of my professors yelled “Bonde! You coming to chapel?!” Caught, I turned and said, “I’m just putting my books down,” and joined the crowd.

I don’t remember who gave the sermon that day. I just remember that it spoke to me so profoundly I was in tears. Afterwards, I was somewhat shaken that for a few minutes of study I would have sold my birthright. I would have not been there when Jesus came.

It was the only sermon like that in the three years I was on campus. There were fine sermons; there were moments of grace; but no other day in which Christ met me as he did that day. And I would have missed it but for Professor Harrisville.

24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

There is a very simple reason we gather together on Sunday. It is here that the risen Christ appears. If Thomas is not there, there is no encounter with the crucified and risen one. If Thomas is not there, there is no word that brings peace. If Thomas is not there, there is no breath of the Spirit, no empowering of a mission, no authority to speak the forgiveness of sins. If Thomas is not there, no faithfulness is created, no allegiance restored. If Thomas is not there, there is for him no bread of life, no living water, no light of the world.

We are not going to hear angels sing at every worship service. But Christ has promised to meet us. It is part of the work of worship for us to watch and listen with an open spirit – or, at least to pray that God will get through to us anyway. The expectation that God has something to say to us is the best preparation for worship.

I learned to listen from Mr. Lunde. I was a new intern; he was the assisting minister. I was worried about what I was supposed to do next in the service and leaned over to ask him a question. He ignored me completely. I tried to get his attention several times, but he didn’t even turn to shush me; he was busy listening to the sermon. Eventually I got the message: he expected Christ to meet him and wasn’t going to miss it. Its sad that after twenty-five years of church life and two years of Seminary I hadn’t yet learned this. But I am grateful for the lesson. Christ met me through Mr. Lunde that day.   But Professor Harrisville still had his call to make. We learn slowly.

Thomas was not with them. He missed it. But he was not catching up on his sleep or mowing the lawn or attending a soccer game the next week. And again Christ came to meet him.

Seeing and believing

Watching for the morning of April 27

Year A

The Second Sunday of Easter

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Doubting Thomas Figure above the south door of St.Thomas’ church. Portland Stone carving showing St.Thomas kneeling to the risen Christ, by Philip Pape in 1956

Every year on the Sunday after Easter we hear of Thomas – Thomas who was absent that first Easter evening and did not see; Thomas, for whom the witness of the others is unable to bring him to faithful allegiance; Thomas who, in his unbelief, nevertheless remains a part of the community, giving him the opportunity to see; Thomas whom the risen Christ sees; Thomas who comes to see.

This is not the only text to speak to us on Sunday. We hear a portion of Peter’s Pentecost message. We sing the psalm that Peter cites to bear witness to the resurrection. And we hear the opening of 1 Peter speak of our new birth and living hope. But Thomas is the gravitational center of the morning, for here is found the blessing upon us and every generation since that first: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Blessed, happy, honorable, at peace with God and the world, are those who have not seen (with their physical eyes) but yet truly see.

The Prayer for April 27, 2014

Gracious Lord Jesus,
in your mercy you did not leave Thomas in his unbelief,
but came to him, revealing your hands and your side,
and calling him into faithfulness.
So come to us wherever we are in our doubt and uncertainty
and by your word reveal yourself to us anew as our living Lord,
who with the Father and Holy Spirit you live and reign,
one God, now and forever

The Texts for April 27, 2014

First Reading: Acts 2:14a, 22-32
“This man… you crucified … But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” – Peter bears witness to the crowds at Pentecost who have been drawn by the sound of a mighty rushing wind.

Psalmody: Psalm 16
“You do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.” – a hymn of praise and trust in which the first witnesses of the resurrection found a prophetic word pointing to Jesus’ resurrection.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 1:3-9
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” –
a rich, beautiful homily on baptism offering a word of encouragement to the Christian community.

Gospel: John 20:19-31
“Then [Jesus] 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.” – Jesus appears to his followers on Easter Evening and commissions them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, then appears again, the following Sunday, to summon Thomas into faith.