I am sure you all very clearly remember my sermon from last year on the first Sunday following Easter. I have no doubt you remember it was on the very same passage we are about to read from the Gospel of John. You probably even remember the title of that amazing sermon, which was: Doubting Thomas? (question mark).
In the very rare likelihood you do not remember that riveting, provocative sermon I gave last year, let me remind you: in that sermon, I went out of my way to repudiate the traditional negative notion of "Doubting Thomas." In fact, I went so far as to hold Thomas up as an exemplary model of a post-modern follower of Jesus. Thomas modeled this by not settling for second hand knowledge, being brave enough to doubt and he was rewarded for his tenacious doubt with a direct encounter with the risen Christ.
This year I want to push that imagery even further. I plan to go far beyond negating Thomas' status as a doubting disciple all the way to proclaiming Thomas' actions as absolutely vital for our survival as Christians and as a church. So put out of your mind all the old traditional assumptions about Thomas. Instead think of Thomas as a positive character, as I read the story listen for what we can learn from him and prepare yourselves for "Doubting Thomas? Part II."
As we prepare to hear God's Word for us today let's pray.
O God, too often we get lost in details and assumptions and miss what is most important. So, give us ears to hear, minds to understand and hearts to love. Amen.
A reading from the Gospel according to John, chapter 20.
(Read John 20.19-31) The Word of the Lord...Thanks be to God!
I would like to invite you on a trip down memory lane, back to the time of crushes, dating and young love. Some of you will not need to remember very far back. And some of you, well, you might need think back quite a ways. If you can remember those early days of love, you might also remember a distinct and near paralyzing fear. You long for physical contact, but those first adventures in contact are really scary. So scary in fact, we who have crossed that line have done so in ridiculous ways.
You often began with a flirty and awkward sideways bump to test the waters and see how casual "inadvertent" physical contact might be received. If you were successful in the flirty yet awkward side bump, then phase two was attempted: the slightly more intentional brush of the hand, which if successfully executed might lead to the very exciting and fulfilling holding of hands. Now of course, if you and your love interest were sitting next to one another there were more advanced moves you might try. Like the ever so casual hand falling on top of the other person's hand. If said hand did not quickly depart upon contact, you might have even attempted to give that hand a squeeze. There was also, and I imagine still is, the very popular yawn, stretch and pull.
Prior to attempting such courageous moves, huge portions of time were spent pondering, interpreting and evaluating. Is it too soon? Is it too late? Does she, or he, like me? What might be the best move to try first? Should I try the yawn, stretch and pull or should just I try to hold her, or his, hand? What if she, or he, pulls away? And on and on and on and on ad nauseum.
Of course, the ultimate goal of all this awkward and silly evaluating and eventual contact was hopefully meeting and connecting with someone who might become a life long partner. The ultimate goal is love. And love can be scary, uncertain, and unpredictable. Expressing your love for another person takes extraordinary courage and it makes you very, very vulnerable, which is why we play those silly games until we are very certain we won't be rejected and hurt.
But the problem is often we get lost in "the game" and forget how amazing and important the goal is. In fact, too many people completely loose sight of the goal and the game becomes everything for them.
Thomas was clearly not up for playing games.
In the Gospel according to John, prior to Jesus' death, Jesus talks for four chapters about love. Jesus repeatedly reminded his disciples of his love for them and repeatedly commanded his disciples to love one another as he has loved them. Jesus actually uses the word "love" 19 times in those four short chapters.
If someone you really love and who really loves you dies that pain and grief is extraordinary. Mere words are insufficient to reassure you that the love you watched die is really alive. In fact, even seeing that love is insufficient because love is not something you see. Love is something you feel.
Upon hearing the news that Jesus is alive, Thomas, in my opinion, very correctly demands to touch Jesus-to touch and feel the love that was crucified on Good Friday. But something more than a simple touch is being expressed here. When you read this passage in Greek, you notice something really weird. The word translated as "put" in English, as in "put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side," is actually most often translated as "throw" in English. Now just so I can sound very impressive and educated, the Greek word used there is "bellw", which is almost exclusively translated in the New Testament as "to throw."
Literally, Thomas is saying, "Unless I can throw my hand into the side Christ, I will not believe." To which Christ responds, "Thomas, reach out your hand and throw it into me! Do not doubt but believe!"
What a powerful image! Just think what it means to throw yourself into Christ-to be thrown into God's greatest treasure, to throw yourself into Jesus and therefore the very core Gospel!
And what is the core of the Gospel?
In my opinion it is this:
God proves God's amazing love in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,1 rose again for us and reigns in power for us!2 Behold anyone who is in Christ is a new creation, the old life is gone a new life has begun.3 Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends and Christ has called us friends.4 So beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God, for God is love.5
Jesus himself said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."6
And love can be scary, uncertain, and unpredictable. Expressing your love for another person takes extraordinary courage and it makes you very, very vulnerable. But friends love is the ultimate goal. Love is the core of who we are called to be and what we are called to do. We are called to be the love of Christ in the world and to love the world as God loves the world. We are called to throw ourselves so deeply into the love God that we have in Christ so that we can envelop everyone in that very same love.
This is why I believe that Thomas' actions are absolutely vital for our survival as Christians and as a church. Love, love that can be experienced, that is felt, that can be touched is the absolute most important thing we have to share with one another and the world.
And for the most part we do a good job of loving one another here at Westminster. We might need to learn to how to concretely express that love a little better. You do know there is nothing in the Book of Order against giving your brother or sister in Christ a good hug from time to time.
If there is one area we fail in love, I think it is in how we communicate who we are to people beyond our walls. In my experience around Wilmington, we are known as the church with great music, great mission, great Christian education, great programs and great preaching. We are even getting a reputation for being a very friendly church.
And these are all really great things. However, if all we are is great music, mission, Christian education, preaching and programming, we are attractive but also in danger because it is always possible that someone might come along and put on a better show than us. But if we exhibit the amazing love of God we have in Christ, making that love tangible, touchable and experiential we will be irresistible. Our greatest asset and calling was, is and will always be sharing the love of God. It is not music or mission or education or preaching or programming that is of greatest importance here. "The greatest of these is love."7
When fail to love and hold up love as our highest value, we fail to be the church.
In his essay "The Present Age," SÃ¸ren Kierkegaard tells a parable about skaters on a large frozen lake. There is an enormous treasure resting in the middle of the lake where the ice is most thin. While everyone would like to obtain the treasure, no one is courageous enough to skate out there and retrieve it. So instead, the skaters learn to skate magnificently around on the thick ice near the shore of the lake. Over time they even learn the exact place where the ice begins to thin so that they can skillfully dash out to the edge of where the ice is still safe creating the illusion of courage. Instead of obtaining the treasure, they become obsessed with creating ever more beautiful, intricate and skillful skating, until all thoughts of the treasure are lost.
This parable is Kierkegaard's picture of the church. The church too easily forsakes its mission of selfless love, growing comfortable and not taking chances. The church too often has an exceedingly impressive appearance in the midst of having abandoned its original purpose.8
God grant us the courage to throw ourselves onto the thin ice and embrace the treasure that waits for us there. Let it be so. Amen.
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