April 23, 2017

“Reach Out And Touch”

John 20:19-31

[This sermon is adapted from A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans For Years A, B, And C. WJK Press]

Thomas will not be content to believe the stories of his friends, and in return for his caution he is invited to touch the body of the resurrected Lord. He knows what he knows, and despite their friend Lazarus, dead people, especially tortured and killed people, remain dead.


In a twist of irony, legend has it that it is Thomas who takes the Gospel message to far-away India, where one has to wonder what words he found to convince people in such a different land that he had been witness to this miraculous act of power, and that its implications should be compelling for them.

But he did compel them. Apparently he took quite seriously the great commissioning, which in John’s gospel comes here in chapter 20 when Jesus says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

Some say that he arrived in Kerala in 52 CE and converted several Brahman and families. These converts in India became known as St. Thomas Christians. They represent a multi ethnic group. Saint Thomas Christian culture is largely derived from Jewish, East Syrian, West Syrian and Hindu influences, blended with local customs and later elements derived from indigenous Indian and European colonial contacts. Their language is Malayalam, the language of Kerala, and Syriac is used for liturgical purposes. Talk about getting off the beaten path!

Thomas’ story is the story for everyone who makes their own way. I intentionally described his condition at the appearance of Jesus as caution, and not doubt, because too often we believe that faith and doubt cannot be present in the same moment. They can, but it is much easier to accept that someone has faith, and is at the same time cautious. Doubt is too often equated with dis-belief.

See, Thomas is like so many of us who cannot simply inherit religion but who struggle to figure out what is true for ourselves. But I am also convinced that faith doesn’t grow out of nothing. I for one have always been uncomfortable with parents who say “I am not going to insist on my children being confirmed and all that religious education. I will wait until they can decide for themselves.” I am not sure that waiting for them to decide works. But I also know that confirmation and all that religious education does not exclude some of us from being cautious. But with that experience we are given by parents and mentors and teachers we then have a resource for our questioning. As Brian McLaren said, “We Make the Road By Walking.”

Many of us who might describe our life of faith as a journey, have had some encounter with the holy that is at the heart of our travel as Christians. Faith, even if it is lifelong and the tradition of our ancestors, is realized in each of us through, as one tradition teaches, experience and reason. And this experience can be quite mystical or ordinary and at the same time do battle with our reason and our tradition.

Thomas has become the sign to every church that demands a lock step adherence to a peculiar and particular way to believe. Thomas illuminates the individual way that we grow into our faith, even while we live out this same faith in community.

Questioning and caution, perhaps, are under rated. If we only rely on what we have learned, we are not available to the grand new thing that God may be working on right in our midst. And, let’s be honest, if we only rely on some mystical experience we might run in the wrong direction, chasing some errant passion or simple indigestion. There is a balance between what we have learned and what the Holy Spirit reveals.

A prime example of this balance is the story from last Sunday of Peter’s transformation to the place where he could proclaim, “I perceive that God shows no partiality.” Here was a man who by all accounts is pretty set in his ways and with the power of the Holy Spirit is able to change his mind.   Another place to witness this balance is in the letter 1 Peter, where the distinction is made between people who knew Jesus during his lifetime, and those who have joined the community later because of the accounts of Jesus’ life told by these people.

Today, everyone falls into this second category. It doesn’t matter if it is you or I or one of the 42% of people in our township who are totally unaffiliated with any religious institution and who have never stepped foot into a church. For the most part, we are all going on hearsay.

Understanding ourselves this way can be good and bad.

It can be bad if we prioritize seeing ourselves as those special folks who ‘have never known a time when I didn’t believe.’ For those of us who grew up in the church, we ‘font to grave’ christians; it is easy to believe that we are somehow ‘better’ than other, newer, members of the faith community. It is also bad if we happen to be one of those newcomers and assign special privilege to some of the old time ‘saints of the church.’ There is no difference between those of us who have been trying our best to be a disciple of Jesus and those who are just starting, and we are wrong to define one.

It can be good if we understand ourselves as ‘on the way,’ and not as ‘having arrived.’ It is helpful because it can force us to give others room to explore their faith. It can be healthy to accept that we are not all at the same place in this journey of faith. That is why we might say of some new initiative, “I know that not everyone will agree or understand, but the goal is to bring everyone along.” New faith experiences happen all along our path. The Holy Spirit directs and guides along the way.

That is not to say that a long road of practicing the Christian faith isn’t helpful. It is. And when we accept that all of us are still exploring the edges of faith, that we all have something to learn, and that humility and caution are not antithetical to faith, we have great potential for faithful following. But the measure of that faithful following is not someone else’s calling, it is your calling.

The story of Thomas, for the writer of the Gospel of John, speaks to all those in later generations (including us, today) who didn’t witness with their own eyes the things the Gospel describes, and yet have come to trust the testimony as true. As Eugene Peterson translates it: “Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing” (The Message). One scholar (Arland Hultgren) calls Jesus’ words a “beatitude” that “puts all Christians of all times and places on the same level before God as the original disciples” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Thomas also reminds us that we are all ‘sent.’ In that sending we are asked to live our own lives faithfully. My call may be different than yours but it isn’t better, or worse. This equality can be empowering. In today’s passage from the Gospel of John, the words of Jesus, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” reassure us that God has given us, each one of us in every age, the Holy Spirit, and has commissioned us, empowered us, to be, like any faithful follower you might think of (I’d think of Oscar Romero), a holy and brilliant flame, each in our own way, breathing love and peace and justice in the midst of fear and pain and hopelessness.

Who ever we are and wherever we are on our faith journey, Jesus invites us to reach out and touch him as Thomas did. There is no judgment for asking questions or for needing a little more convincing than someone else. There is confidence on his part that we each have this gifts required for that which is set before us. This is true because we are all on this journey together, sharing our own encounters with the risen Christ as we grow closer to one another and to God. That is why Jesus himself said: “blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.”