Friday, April 17, 2009

Sermon: Thomas Sunday (19 April 2009)


Sermon: Thomas Sunday (19 April 2009)
(Acts 4:32-35/Psalm 133/1 John 1:1-2:2/John 20:16-31)
Waiting for the Lord

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The church greets us this second Sunday of Pascha, Thomas Sunday, with good and very good news: Christos anesti – Christ is risen! What is our reply? That depends very much on who we are and where we are in the now iconic story of “Doubting Thomas,” a story which began exactly one week prior, on the first day of the week and the first day of new creation.

Very early, while it was still dark, on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene and the other myrrhbearing women approach the garden tomb with spices to complete the anointing of Jesus’ body for proper burial. Ignoring the other women, Saint John tells the story of Mary.

Now the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him” (John 20:1-2, NKJV).

The displaced stone and the empty tomb greet Mary with good and very good news: Christos anesti – Christ is risen! What is her reply? “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” Where we expect to hear, where we hope to hear, “Alithos anesti – He is risen, indeed!” we hear only confusion and doubt. Mary cannot yet say Alithos anesti because she has not yet encountered the risen Christ.

Peter reacts quickly to Mary’s news; he and the disciple whom Jesus loved – almost certainly John – run together to the tomb. John, probably younger and certainly faster than Peter, reaches the tomb first, but hesitates to enter.

And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. Then the disciples went away again to their own homes (John 20:5-10, NKJV).

The linen cloths and the napkin, neatly folded and lying by itself – and only an eye-witness account would contain such seemingly trivial detail – these greet the Apostles with good and very good news: Christos anesti – Christ is risen! What is their reply? Silence. Where we expect to hear, where we hope to hear, “Alithos anesti – He is risen, indeed!” we hear only the faintest stirrings of faith, these overwhelmed by confusion: they did not yet know the Scripture. Peter and John cannot yet say Alithos anesti because they have not yet encountered the risen Christ.

By now Mary has returned to the garden. She thinks herself alone there and is surprised first by angels and then by Jesus, himself, though at first she does not know him.

She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”
She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to Him, “Rabboni!” (which is to say, Teacher).
Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her (John 20: 14b-18, NKJV).

First the angels, then later Jesus, greet Mary with good and very good news: Christos anesti – Christ is risen! And now, in her cry of “Rabboni!” and in the words she carries to the Apostles – “I have seen the Lord!” – Mary finally responds – and she is the first to do so – Alithos anesti – He is risen indeed! Now, and only now, can Mary proclaim Alithos anesti! because she has now encountered the risen Christ. The reality of his presence compels her to proclaim, “He is risen, indeed!”

Later, on the evening of this same day – the first day of the week – Jesus appears to the disciples as they sit huddled in fear behind closed doors. “Shlama alookh,” he says, “Peace be among you,” as he shows them the marks of victory on his hands and side. Again he says, “Shlama alookh,” as he breaths on them the Holy Spirit and sends them forth in his name. This is a moment of new creation when God, as he did once in the Garden, breathes again the breath of life – his very Spirit – into man, re-forming man in his own image and re-making man a living being. Jesus greets the disciples with the good and very good news: Christos anesti – Christ is risen! Now, and only now, can they proclaim Alithos anesti! because they have encountered the risen Christ, because He has spoken peace in their hearts, because he has filled them with his very Spirit and has renewed them in the image of God.

For reasons left unexplained Thomas is absent from the assembly when Jesus first appeared to the disciples. When he returns – apparently later on that same first day of the week – his companions greet Thomas with good and very good news: Christos anesti – Christ is risen! But what can Thomas reply? Certainly not Alithos anesti! because he has not yet encountered the risen Christ. So, he responds as he can, genuinely: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25b, NKJV). This is not willful, stubborn disbelief in spite of sufficient evidence. This is the humble admission that Thomas is no different – no better, no worse – than Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, and all the other disciples – none of whom could say Alithos anesti – He is risen, indeed! – until they had encountered the risen Christ.

Scripture passes over the next week in silence, but our thoughts need not be silent. We are no strangers to anxious waiting, to that strange human mixture of disbelief and hope-against-hope: the pending medical results, the birth of a first child, the rapidly approaching end of an aged parent. I am not certain what Thomas did, though I think I have a reasonable idea. But I know what I would have done. In Thomas’ position I would have remained with the community, badgering them again and again for every detail of every appearance: “What did Jesus say, again? How did he look? Was he angry or disappointed or pleased? Did he say where he was going or when he might return? Did he mention me?” I would have searched my memory for every word Jesus ever spoke to me or to you or to the crowds: What have I missed? What am I not seeing? I would have poured over the ancient texts – the Law and the Prophets and the Writings – and the ancient rites of the faithful, looking for hints and clues and insights. I would have prayed – the Psalms of my people and my own words – often in inarticulate groans and sometimes in utter silence, and almost certainly with fasting. I would have let my heart break with longing for an encounter with the risen Christ and I would have settled for nothing less.

One week Thomas waits, until this day – Thomas Sunday – when Jesus once again appears behind the same closed door. After his now familiar greeting of “Shlama alookh,” peace be among you, Jesus turns his attention solely to Thomas. “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27, NKJV). This is a moment for the human heart to burst asunder with the joy of every good thing in all creation, with the joy of every glad tiding ever spoken, with the joy of the good and very good news: Christos anesti – Christ is risen! And now, finally, Thomas, too, can respond, Alithos anesti – he is risen, indeed! “My Lord and my God,” is how Thomas words it, but it is all the same: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

It is not incidental – it is by God’s grace – that immediately following this account of Thomas, John writes in his Gospel:

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 (John 20:30-31, NRSV).

This account of Thomas was written for us, John says, for all who never had or never will have – this side of kingdom come – the chance to see the risen Lord in his glorified body. Thomas serves as metaphor – as the patron saint, if you like – for every Christian, because our experience so parallels his own.

Like Thomas we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses who, from their own experience, proclaim Christos anesti – Christ is risen! Alithos anesti – He is risen indeed! The apostles, the five hundred who at one time saw Jesus, the five thousand on the day of Pentecost filled with the Holy Spirit, the fathers of the early church, the holy martyrs of persecutions past and present, the desert abbas and ammas, the saints throughout history – Romanos, Anne, Hermione, Barbara, John the Forerunner, Catherine, Mary Magdalene, Macarius, Augustine, Francis, Silouan – and modern elders like Paisios: all these and countless others proclaim Christos anesti. All these speak with one voice, “We have seen the Lord.” Some days we find the testimony of their words and their lives compelling and we are moved to cry out, for their sakes if not our own, Alithos anesti – He is risen indeed! But, other days, we are like Thomas listening to Peter and the rest, caught between hope and disbelief, able only to say, “Unless I see…unless I touch.” On these days we rely on the faith of others; we let them speak for us or we echo their certainty when we lack our own. On these days we take great comfort in Jesus’ words to Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29b, NKJV). On these days, like the man who sought healing for his demon-possessed son, we call out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24, NKJV).

On these days we wait for Jesus to appear, to make himself known to us: beyond doubt, beyond words, beyond doctrine, beyond belief. On these days the song we sometimes sing expresses our longing well:

Open our eyes, Lord,
we want to see Jesus,
to reach out and touch him,
and say that we love him

Open our ears, Lord,
and help us to listen,
open our eyes, Lord,
we want to see Jesus (Open Our Eyes, Bob Cull).

So, what do we do on these days – during the long week between resurrection and appearance? We do what the church tells us; we do what the saints tell us. We do what those who have experienced the risen Christ tell us. We take our place as part of the worshipping community, part of the body of Christ. We engage in the work of the people, the liturgy, and we treasure the sacraments. We ask the saints around us – saints on earth and saints in heaven -- what they know of Jesus, where they’ve seen him last, and what they were doing when he appeared to them. We devote ourselves to the ancient texts – to the Scriptures and the writings of the saints, to the accounts of their lives. We pour over them as if our lives depend on them, for indeed they do. We discipline ourselves to say no to the world and to ourselves so that we might say yes to the Lord. We fast and we pray, striving to pray continually; the saints say that such prayer leads to Jesus. We treasure faith and doctrine but we learn never to be content with either; it is Jesus we want and we determine never to settle for less. We do all these things because Jesus appears to those who do – in his own time and in his own way, but he appears. We do these things because, like Thomas, we are determined to say our own “Alithos anesti! My Lord and my God!”

Let us pray.

Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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John +