Sermon preached by Robert Berra, Seminarian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday of Easter – April 15, 2012
I have been sitting with this story of “Doubting Thomas” all week. It has been rather uncomfortable. I’ve been a bit haunted by the phrase “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
I’ve always heard this phrase as a condemnation. Perhaps someone has told you that the story of “doubting Thomas” is a warning against losing your faith. Perhaps you have heard this passage used as a bludgeon; that if you have doubts and questions, then Jesus revokes his blessing, and you are no longer welcome or worthy to stand among those who believe.
But there is something not quite right about that interpretation. It led me to this question: Why does Jesus not simply tell the disciples to let Thomas know that he is risen – and if Thomas does not believe, well, tough for him? Put another way: If Jesus said that a blessing is on those who have not seen and yet believe, why does Jesus even bother to come and give Thomas what Thomas asked for – a physical experience of the resurrection?
Another question comes up for me, and this brings up a matter for the community: If belief is so important, why do the disciples keep Thomas around – the disbeliever that he is – sheltering him for a week before Jesus shows up again?
These questions give me pause, and it forces me to pay more attention to what Jesus is doing before I try to figure out what he is saying. And as I look at Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in this Gospel, it becomes clearer that Jesus so desires to reconstitute the community he formed that he is willing to go to great lengths to do it and entertain his own disciples’ disbelief and questions. By Jesus’ own radical love for his disciples in the midst of their own disbelief, Jesus shows us how we are to experience our community life.
To look at the story again, we opened the reading with the disciples hiding behind a locked door. Mary Magdalene had seen Jesus and told the disciples. John and Peter ran to the tomb. John believed, but we don’t know if Peter or any of the disciples did. In the other Gospels they do not. So, we have disciples, who are NOT out preaching the resurrection but who are hiding and are not sure what has happened to the body of Jesus. While Thomas sometimes gets a bad reputation, none of the disciples look too good here.
Jesus comes to them in the room, and the disciples knew him from two things: his word of peace and his wounds. They celebrate. Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit, a sign of his power residing within them. They are now a people sent, just as God sent Jesus into the world.
Later, Thomas comes in. They tell him what happened. He does not believe them. He, being a realist, wants proof. Even then, in times some would consider less enlightened, the dead do not rise. The word of the disciples is not good enough.
Now here is something interesting. Thomas, in his disbelief, spends an entire week with the rest of the disciples. They having received the Holy Spirit, share in Jesus’ mission and life. They do not make Thomas leave. They do not berate Thomas. They stay in relationship to Thomas. Thomas also stays with them. Then a week later, Jesus, who could have written Thomas off in his unbelief, returns.
And it is in this personal return of Jesus to Thomas that we see the point of the encounter. We start of see the nature of God in Jesus, who is the expression of God’s love in the flesh. A love that continues and is not simply bound to how much love the disciples can return to God. This is the love of a God who desires and yearns to be in relationship, and in relationship, to open the eyes of the disciples to the way the world should be. This is why the disciples, after having received the Holy Spirit, do not turn Thomas out of the community.
Last Sunday Father Nicholas mentioned that the resurrection is less understood as something to be reasoned through and argued for. It is something to be experienced. Even the disciples had to see the resurrection and touch the formerly broken body of Jesus before they could believe it.
Now we come to that pesky statement about seeing and believing. Blessed may be the one who believes yet has not seen, but Jesus shows a grace by the personal encounter that demonstrates that he will go to great lengths to make himself – and God – known to all. The disciples belonged with God before their belief was a matter settled. Thomas belonged with Jesus before his belief was settled. So too, we are not left condemned.
In our weakness and uncertainty, doubt and questions, God’s grace reaches even further to meet us.
God calls us into this experience of walking through life in the light of a radical love. We are not simply called into a philosophical school (though we have this) of propositions to be defended, but into a relationship with God and the world, which is to be characterized by an indiscriminate loving regard – for God, neighbor, and stranger.
Now, after Christ’s ascension, we are still offered the experience of God who abides in us. From the spark of the divine image of God we all share, we encounter God in all who we meet. As a community of resurrection, we remember that Jesus bore witness to life after terrible woundings and death, showing the disciples his own pierced hands, feet, and side. We likewise receive the Good News from God and from one another that life and love and goodness are possible in the most trying of times, and that there is a community willing to bear the image of God into the world…to walk alongside others in pain, through to the other side of what may feel like our own personal tombs.
We experience God in worship, music, prayer, and contemplation. Like the disciples, the community of God found here, by the power of the Spirit, is called to hold open the space where an experience of God in Christ is possible, and every possible opportunity to experience God is open to all.
From the front door to the font, from the pews to the altar, from the bread and wine to our healing stations during Communion. The welcome further continues in the ministry of conversation we participate in when we are not in this sanctuary but eating and drinking together at meals, at coffee hour, or in study.
Christ beckons, and the divine lure calls.
We call what we do here “radical hospitality,” but the best-kept secret of modern Christianity is that this hospitality is in many ways traditional. It is the lifeblood of the Way of Jesus. Saint Benedict of Nursia, who wrote one of the most influential rules of life for monasteries in the 6th century, advised that communities welcome all visitors as though they were Christ, and that those who came to the community belonged with the community – and were considered guests sent from God – regardless of whether or not they were believers. Celtic Christians, well into the medieval period, kept similar monastic practices, allowing all to enter and stay and experience the life of the Christian community before a person had to commit to a series of propositions. You could belong before you believed.
This community offers God’s welcome and does not hold back the good things of God from anyone. This community acknowledges that all belong here regardless of whether or not one believes and exists so it can be a place in which believers and nonbelievers can experience Christ together. And our questions, our doubts, will be met by the grace of God.