By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 20:24-31
NRS John 20:24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 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." 26 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." 27 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." 28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" 29 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." 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
My dad’s call to ministry came later in life and he started seminary in Ohio when I was four years old. My brother, Dan, 13 years my senior, wasn’t thrilled about leaving his friends in Johnstown to move to Ohio. During dad’s seminary, Dan turned 18 and continued to live in the church parsonage with our family. If you’ve ever done it, you know it can be tough having adult children living under your roof. Dan didn’t like to attend church… which was a bit awkward for my dad. A deal was struck that, for as long as Dan lived in the parsonage, he must – at the least – attend Sunday morning worship.
Now, my mom never got her driver’s license and one evening my dad did not arrive home in time to drive mom to choir rehearsal at the church. But my brother was home with his motorcycle. Knowing that my mom was always looking for a way to get him more engaged with the church, Dan struck a bargain: if mom would ride his motorcycle to church, not only would Dan drive her, he’d even stay for choir rehearsal.
Now, this was the early 70’s when those big, bouffant wigs were all the rage. If you don’t know what they look like, just Google them. My dad’s church was north of Dayton, Ohio in a wide-open, flat, very small farming community with only 4 or 5 streets in the whole town. It was a warm spring evening and several folks were out sitting on their front porches on rockers or porch swings. It was more temptation than my brother could resist. As he turned the corner onto the main street leading to the church, he floored the motorcycle, causing it to lift into a slight wheelie. My mom let out a little shriek and threw her arms around my brother’s waist, holding on for dear life. Meanwhile, the sudden acceleration sent my mom’s head moving faster than her wig which flew off, traveling at its own, much slower, rate of speed down the street.
Now, being a child at the time, I learned about this event when my dad returned home from worship the following Sunday where he had been approached by a church member in the narthex. The member happened to live on said street and, chuckling, relayed the whole drama to my father, concluding with his personal commentary (in a southern Appalachian drawl) of how comical it had been to see Shirley’s wig just drifting down the street like a tumble weed.
If you are a parent, you have likely had the church battle with your kids. Most youth experience a phase during adolescence when they want to bail on church. Some parents respond by cracking down even harder, kids in tow every time the church doors open. Others respond with rapid surrender.
But, truth be told, I’ve noticed there’s no clear expiration date on these ambivalent church feelings and theological doubts. If we are truly in touch with our own emotions, then even through our adult years, we continue to experience times of questioning with questions like:
We are currently in the midst of this sermon series in which we examine scriptures associated with the Easter season in relation to the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. Like our Fusion outreach which fuses the sacred story with our own life stories, this sermon series fuses the sacred stories of scripture with these classic Andersen tales.
This week’s story is The Philosopher’s Stone. It is a fantastical tale of a wise old man who lives with his four sons and daughter in the gigantic Tree of Sun. The tree is like its own remarkable world within which the man and his family live out their days. Within the wise man’s home was the Book of Truth. And yet, despite his wisdom, he could not comprehend the portion of the book he most wanted to decipher. He could not read the portion entitled Life after Death. Now, he was familiar with the Bible and its promise of eternal life. But he was not satisfied with it, wanting, instead, to find the answer in his own book. The man taught his children that, within the world, the true, the beautiful, and the good were crystallized together into the philosopher’s stone, which unlocked the knowledge of God. His sons could not resist the lure of this precious jewel, this philosopher’s stone, and one by one, they set out to find it. They set out with certainty and with pride, trusting in their own exceptional abilities, confident in themselves. Yet, the evil one, the father of lies, intercepts each one, corrupting them and sending them off course. Their abilities no longer serve them and they find themselves alone and adrift in the world, discouraged and distracted.
This morning’s gospel story is the conclusion of John, chapter 20, a chapter that begins with the account of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning. That morning, it is only Mary who sees the risen Lord who commissions her to go and tell the good news to his disciples. Mary does so, joyfully proclaiming to them, “I have seen the Lord.” Yet, it doesn’t seem that the disciples take Mary’s words to heart because later that evening they are together, hiding out behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. The prevailing emotion is not one of joy and confidence. It is one of fear. Suddenly Jesus appears among them, announcing peace. He shows them his pierced hands and side, offering proof that he is the very same Jesus put to death on the cross and laid in the tomb. He is risen just as he said. Yet, for some undisclosed reason, Thomas is not with the disciples on Easter evening and so, when the others proclaim the good news to him, he is as dubious as they were when Mary gave testimony to them. He is at least as dubious and clearly more outspoken. “I’ll believe it if I see it… and feel it,” Thomas says in a nutshell. After all, seeing is believing. And so, one week later, as the disciples are hanging out once again – this time with Thomas – Jesus appears, again behind locked doors, to reveal himself to Thomas, specifically. “Here,” Jesus says, “reach out your hands and touch my hands and side and then you’ll know for sure that it’s me.” And Thomas erupts in an affirmation of faith, “My Lord and my God!” In other words, it really is you and you really are who you said you are.
Then, the gospel narrator turns his attention toward us, the gospel audience. Three resurrection appearance stories in a row (Mary, the disciples, Thomas), these three stories have revealed the truth of the human condition: it is hard for us to believe what we have not seen with our own eyes.
And yet, it is possible. It can be done.
All four of the wise man’s sons get lost out in the world. They were so sure of their own abilities and so confident. But they do not find the world as manageable as they assumed it would be. It does not bow to them as they’d hoped. It is not all they fancied it to be.
Yet one daughter remains. She is not eager to leave her father until, one night when she has a dream in which her brothers appear to her. Early the next morning, even before her father has awakened, she departs out into the world to find her brothers and the stone. But she is blind and so she ties a thread to her father’s house so she can find her way back. Her attachment to her father, her brothers and their home and her trust in God and his will prevent the evil one from prevailing over her and, at story’s end, she returns home with the stone and her brothers. As she returns, the Book of Truth gleams with one word “believe.” What was the truth to eternal life so long hidden in the book: Believe.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples
which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God,
and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Friends: to believe does not mean that we never doubt. It does not mean that we never drift away for a bit. To believe does not mean that we will be able to see all things clearly and it certainly does not mean that our own efforts and extraordinary abilities will get us straightened out spiritually.
But, as we move toward Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, these stories have an important lesson for us: neither naïveté nor arrogance nor negligence will serve us very well. Questioning and challenging are of great value. To truly see Jesus, to truly comprehend him as our Lord and our God, we cannot be afraid to doubt and we should not berate ourselves for negative emotions which are simply a part of the human condition. Those first disciples were sad and fearful, anxious and uncertain. It is not only Thomas. John’s gospel makes clear: all of those original disciples were doubters.
It is okay, even good and perfectly normal, to doubt and to question… whatever our age. But, let us question from within the community. Let us, like the wise man’s daughter, not release that thread of community, that tie that binds. Even when we stray, even when we stumble, even when we go off in the wrong direction, we can follow that thread and find our way back home. Let us not release that thread of community, that tie that binds, for we grow together and we comprehend more of Christ through the witness of one another. Friends: sometimes we are not able to see for ourselves. Sometimes we are only able to see through the eyes of others; yet sometimes that is enough.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
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