Windsor Community United Methodist Church
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Mike Turgeon “Rise Up. Elevate Your Faith: Belief” May 1, 2011
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.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘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.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.‘ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A 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.’ Then 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.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ John 20:19-29
Rise Up. Elevate Your Faith: Belief
Today we begin a new series entitled, “Rise Up. Elevate Your Faith.” We are now in the period after Easter sometimes called The Great 50 Days that runs until Pentecost. In the early church this was traditionally a teaching period in the elements of the faith for those who had just been newly baptized.
What do concepts such as salvation, sacrifice, the kingdom of heaven, prophesy mean to those who follow? And today, what does it mean to believe in the Risen Christ. How is your life different because Jesus lives?
I’ve always found the story of Thomas to be the most compelling of the post-resurrection appearances. After all, Doubting Thomas kind of acts as a symbol for anyone who has ever entertained doubts about religion, or God, or Jesus. It has been fashionable for centuries to mock Thomas for his doubt. Not only mock but marginalize and demonize him for walking the fine line between doubt and faith.
At the end of the day, though, I find this to be a faith story of the highest order, not a doubt story. Yes, Thomas and his doubting of Jesus takes center stage, but it is the back story where I see the power for us. This small band of dispirited disciples must find faith in each other in order to go forward in the face of fear without the physical presence of their leader.
Sometimes, finding faith in each other, whether it be your family, your business partner, your spouse, your church, is even harder than establishing religious faith. But this is what we see happening as Jesus prepares to take his leave. Can this fragile circle take the gift of faith and pass it on?
The odds were stacked against the apostles in many ways. They are locked in this Upper Room we hear so much about, scared out of their wits that the Jewish authorities have turned them in to the Romans just like Jesus was turned in by one of their own. Could there be another Judas among them? Maybe Thomas himself wasn’t present the first time Jesus came for some nefarious reason.
We can only speculate on such things. But one thing for sure, it’s a tense passage all the way through, despite the appearance by Jesus. Had they been squabbling amongst themselves?
The first words Jesus says to his friends is “Peace be with you.” He even says it twice, then he says it a third time after Thomas shows up. Are they at each other’s throats? I wouldn’t be surprised. Fear and anxiety takes its toll on relationships.
We only encounter Thomas in John’s Gospel, but he shows up three times. Those who study such things say the addition of Thomas was meant to refute a heresy called Docetism,
Docetists were people who said Jesus only ‘seemed’ to be human but was not really. This notion is denied when Thomas places his hands on Jesus’ body.
That kind of church history is important to know, but for who we are, Thomas represents that two-sided coin of doubt and faith. But he is more than that. The first time we encounter him is in chapter 11, when Jesus and his disciples learn of the death of Lazarus. Will they travel back to Bethany, which means going near Jerusalem, knowing that Jesus is a wanted man? It is Thomas who boldly urges that they all go with Jesus,“that we may die with him.”
That doesn’t sound like a doubter, that sounds like a man of action.
Three chapters later, however, at the Last Supper, we see his doubting side start to surface. When Jesus tries to tell them that he is “going to prepare a place for them, and they know the way,” it is Thomas who says, “How can we know the way?”
Thomas is referred to as didymous, which in Greek means Twin. I’m not surprised. It is as if he has two sides. He is forceful and influential, he is doubtful and fearful. That ever happen to you?
Then after Thomas‘ doubting experience with the risen Christ, he becomes Thomas the Brave once again. Eventually, after Pentecost, the apostles went out from Jerusalem, rising up to spread the Good News about Jesus. A number of them went far and wide, including Thomas who traveled to India. Many people there came to believe in Jesus through Thomas's work, and in the 1700s when Christian missionaries arrived in India, they found a thriving though small group of Christians known as the Mar Thoma, or St. Thomas church, a church that continues to this day. A church founded by a doubter.
But Thomas himself met the same fate as many of his fellow apostles. By spreading the teachings of Jesus that the last should be first and the first should be last, this flew in the face of the strictly enforced Hindu caste system in India, and Thomas was put to death around the year 50 AD.
So, you see, the rest of Thomas's story is a powerful one. Having his faith validated by Jesus led Doubting Thomas to become Faithful-acting Thomas all the way to the end. It is good to know...the rest of the story.
So have you ever entertained doubt? If you say “no” I don’t believe you. To doubt is to be human. To live is to doubt.
And the church is one of the few places where those who have faith, and those who doubt come together regularly. That was true in the Upper Room in 33AD, it is true in 2011AD.
Believe me, pastors are asked questions laced with doubt. Is there life after death? Does the bread and wine become the body and blood? Do my prayers get a hearing, let alone a chance at getting answered?
Important questions. I’ve wrestled with them as hard as Jacob ever wrestled with God, as I know many of you have. So I have a question: “Why is it when we have doubts, that we stay connected to church? Why don’t we turn around and leave church in times when we can’t, for whatever reason, believe?
Thomas could well have gone in that direction. I mean, his friends here who believe haven’t exactly acted in a trustworthy manner. When Thomas took the lead, willing to face danger and die, it isn’t long before he witnesses a betrayal, a denial, and a general abandoning of Jesus to his death. Would you have blamed Thomas if he had just said, “Sorry, guys, but you’re not making it easy for me.”
What kept him around anyway?
Well, my guess is, it’s the same thing that happens around here. Relationships carry the day. Those apostles spent a lot of time together in those three years of Jesus’s ministry. The bond of love that developed was the glue that prevented this fragile band from dissolving after the loss of their leader.
Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus first re-appeared, but he kept walking in his doubt until he could have his faith affirmed.
And Thomas’s friends could have easily given up on him. Should this doubter be allowed to continue as part of this group, a group selected by Jesus himself, if Thomas didn’t believe them? Yes, this resurrection was surprising, but Jesus said it was going to happen. It would have been easy for Thomas to depart in disgust, it would have been easy for his friends get up on their high horse.
But they didn’t. It was, indeed, a faith community.
A faith community is a living thing. Your Leadership Board has commissioned a sub-committee to conduct a ‘listening project.’ They want to hear what is on your heart. They gotta’ go through your mind to get to your heart so it takes a bit of maneuvering. The goal is to develop a ministry plan for the future. How do we best carry out our mission here, given who we are?
Already, there have been about 10 or so conversations in small groups of 2s and 3s. You will be asked what God has put on your heart to serve. Now, how radical is that? Someone wants to hear what you have to say about your passions.
Of those who have spoken, an interesting thread is the number of persons who had a gap in their participation in church. For all different reasons. Sometimes, a relationship with God, or people, or ministry was not a priority.
And the reasons people find their way back to the church? They’re all different, all over the map, but the body of Christ, the priesthood of all believers, and I would even say, the fellowship of doubters, still offers a place of connection in this world of isolation.
In my own journey back to a faith community, I began attending a small Methodist Church in Bennett Valley. I signed up for a class before the church service called “Getting to Know Jesus.” It was being taught by a man named Joseph Waters. At the time, my understanding of Jesus was all based on Catholic catechism class and morning Mass up until about the age of 14.
I didn’t really know Jesus in a very personal way, but I knew Joseph Waters. I respected him. He let me ask some very basic questions, and allowed me to make some rather staunch statements. Statements like... ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands...’
Joseph didn’t flinch...he took my questions seriously. Little did he know that he allowed me to keep walking the line between doubt and faith.
Just when I feel that God can't possibly answer prayers, one of you will tell me about a prayer that was answered. Just when I find myself succumbing to despair that human beings will ever do any good, one of you tells me of a good deed rendered. Just when I find myself questioning God's very existence, some one of you will tell me of a deep sense of God’s presence.
Growing up in Indiana and Michigan as I did, summertime was all about ice cream trucks and fireflies, particularly, collecting the fireflies, or lightning bugs, as we called them, into a jar. Now, some of you may know this, but if you caught enough of these magical bugs in a jar you could read by them when your parents thought you were sleeping. A jar full of fireflies creates a nice, steady, constant light.
But if you looked at the jar carefully, you could see that the individual fireflies were twinkling on and off again. None of the fireflies were on all the time, but the light of the fireflies that were on kept the light steady for the fireflies that were off.
Thomas, once so brave, couldn't be on all the time, but the community of disciples upheld him when he was weak, when he had trouble believing, until he found that he, too, could believe; until he, too, experienced the presence of the risen Christ in his life and could cry out with the others, My Lord and my God!
Like the fireflies, like Thomas, none of us can be shining all the time. All of us will have times when, for whatever reason, we cannot believe. That's when we count on the light of others in the faith community to shine for us, to lighten our life until we find our way back and are able to shine again.
You and I might not be as brave as Thomas, and we might not have had the chance Jesus offered, to put our hands in his side, to touch the wounds on his hands and his feet. But we do have the same strength that Thomas did, the strength that kept him around until he could feel Christ's presence in his life again, the support of a community of people of faith, who will shine for us whenever we feel our own light faltering.
God’s gathered people are asked to make a promise, when we baptize, when we teach, when we engage in fellowship; a promise to encourage and support the light of Christ in each one we meet, especially when we meet in the breaking of the bread.
Holy Communion served.