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Among Believers

thomasJohn 20: 19-31
Introduction to the reading
During the season of Easter – the Sundays from today through Pentecost on June 4, also known as the Great Fifty Days – we will be reading Scripture with two themes:  (1) post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and (2) words from Jesus while he still walked the earth that look ahead to that later time.

Today we hear the familiar story of the disciple Thomas, who came to be known as “doubting Thomas”.  He was actually quite bold and courageous, however, in expressing what he felt was required for him to take a strong stand – a bold leap of faith.

The time is evening on the same day it was discovered that the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid was empty.

Sermon
Headline in the Sunday Review section of The Star-Ledger last week, Easter, by Rabbi Gerald L. Zelizer of Metuchen:

FINDING THE RIGHT FIT
Christians and Jews cling to their religions
but scatter from their houses of worship. Should they be staying?

I know how my Christian colleagues must feel when they look out at a sanctuary packed with parishioners this Easter morning.  Similar to my high when Jews show up en masse for the fall Jewish high holy days.  But reality sets in with the knowledge that these holy days are the exception.  Next week service attendance will retreat to more recognizable lesser numbers.

Religion in America [has] moved from being highly public and unified, as in colonial times, to very private and diverse. … “I believe in God.  I’m not a religious fanatic.  I can’t remember the last time I went to church.  My faith has carried me a long way. … It’s just try to love yourself… take care of each other.” Some believers want to do it in their own way, with as few institutional constraints and definitions as possible.

All religions began spontaneously and eventually became encrusted with “official” institutions and clergy. …  (Zelizer D5)

Zelizer finishes his piece with a 3-point argument for organized religion: the value of sharing experiences with other believers; the structure and staffing of a physical space to facilitate study, prayer and worship; the knowledge and guidance of ordained clergy.  I would add that church is a safe place where the mystery of faith is allowed to be explored and enjoyed.

In our Gospel reading today, we see the beginnings of the church, one might say, in a pure and original form.  Granted, there is no mention of a formal liturgy, prayers, hymns; that would come later, after the Gospels, in the book of Acts.  We can infer, though, that they were accustomed to meeting regularly like this, since a few verses on, John says: A week later his disciples were again in the house…

So, the disciples are gathered together, perhaps discussing the incredible events of the day, how Jesus was gone from the tomb, no longer dead.  Then suddenly, he was there, with them.  He was real.  He said essentially two things:  “Peace be with you” and “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
The tenor of the gathering is set:  Jesus is present, the Holy Spirit comes upon them, peace be with you.  You will be able to handle anything…

But Thomas isn’t there that first time; he does not experience Jesus.  So he sets demands: unless I see the marks and touch the wounds, I will not believe.

One commentator on this passage wrote a great line:  “Faith is a mystery of the heart that the mind wants to solve.”  He goes on to say:

To admit that we take certain things on faith is to say that we are willing, in limited circumstances, for things not to make perfect sense.  Still, we want faith to be shored up by certain evidences, so that the leap of faith is a manageable one.  In [the] Easter season we celebrate the biggest mystery of faith: that Jesus was slain for the sins of the world and that he rose from the grave. (Schmit 395)

Thomas’ demand was satisfied.  Jesus came again to the gathering of disciples and Thomas did touch him.  For Jesus it was an opportunity:  
“… blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

For us, so many centuries later, who have not seen and yet have come to believe, what we have to affirm the faith is testimony.  

  • Testimony began last week.  The stories we have of the resurrection of Jesus are not first-hand accounts but testimonies, evidence given by the first and closest witnesses to the mystery.
  • Thomas did not want to rely on the testimony of the other disciples; he needed to see for himself.  They were all gathered together again; Jesus came again; Thomas saw and touched.  A believer among believers.  His leap of faith becomes more compelling testimony for us.
  • Beginning with those first apostles, then Paul and others we meet in Scripture, then the early church, right down to our own time, we rely on testimony, one to another and to our own selves.  We teach the faith to our children and thus pass it on; we share the faith by being living examples; we rely on the faith to sustain us in good times and bad.  And we come to church to enjoy and explore together the mystery of God’s presence with us.

We have to keep asking ourselves:  how are we doing?  The statistics Rabbi Zelizer cites about attendance at churches and synagogues suggest that collectively we’re not doing so well.  Why?  Our society has no let up, no time for a breather, no time to reflect, to listen, to think, to wonder, to marvel, to thank, to prepare, to refresh, to renew, to restore.  Don’t we yearn for that?       Or do we no longer care?  What a sad and worrisome question…

Yet, you have come – here, today. You do come.  Blessed are you who have not seen and yet have come … to believe.      

Schmit, Clayton J. “John 20:19-31”. Feasting on the Word Eds. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor.  Louisville: WJK, 2010 395-399.
Zelizer, Gerald L. “Finding the Right Fit”. The Star-Ledger 16 Apr. 2017, D5.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
April 23, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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