The Rev. Dianne O’Connell

First Congregational Church

May 1, 2011

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

I Peter 1:3-9

John 20:19-31

 

“So He Walks Through Walls, Does He?”

 

            Good morning. And Happy Easter.  Yes, officially it is still the Easter Season, this being the second of six Sundays included therein, according to the Liturgical Calendar. And this second Sunday of Easter is dedicated to the disciple Thomas, forever to be known as Doubting Thomas because of his Missouri attitude – show me first, then I’ll believe.

            The Gospels of Mark and Matthew do not include this story. The Gospel of Luke offered the familiar story of Jesus meeting two of his disciples along the Road to Emmaus, but only John reports this story about Thomas in chapter 20.  Chapter 21 of John, by the way, is generally thought of by scholars as an appendix added later. Next week, we’re going to talk about something else, so if you want to read chapter 21 on your own, you’ll find a report on one last fishing trip with the disciples and the re-instatement of Peter.

            But today, we think and talk about the story about Thomas in the Gospel of John.Until the nineteenth century, this gospel was almost universally accepted as the work of John son of Zebedee, one of the original twelve disciples.  It was believed thathe had migrated to Ephesus and as a very old man written his memories of the life of Jesus.  I even mentioned last week that some traditions had Mary Magdalene joining him at Ephesus in her old age to help with the writing project.

            I have to tell you that both versions of who wrote the Gospel of John are no longer accepted by today’s scholars.  The actual identity of the author remains a mystery, but it would seem that he lived and wrote some 100 to 110 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Fortunately, the religious value of the book does not depend upon knowledge of who wrote it. Its value lies in its own stated purpose. John does not attempt to present a complete historical account of the life of Jesus, but rather to present a religious interpretation of Jesus, a spiritual Gospel to supplement the historical gospels that were already available.

            The author states two principal reasons for writing the gospel in verses 30 and 31:

            Theses are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.  So that is the primary message from Jesus to Thomas and to us:

“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

But the story offers this message in so many different ways. I had the opportunity this week to read seven different sermons based on this passage.  I was fascinated with all the different directions these pastors took this story. Each of the seven sermons was distinctly different – as if seven different people experienced the story in seven different ways – which, of course, is what happened.

            Two that particularly spoke to me was one entitled “No Interview” and another about the walls that the Christ passes through to bring Hope and Peace to those who can believe.

            The first pastor recalled agreeing to go on a blind date as a young man to a costume party on a Halloween.  Not having much time to prepare, he grabbed a white sheet, cut a couple holes in it for eyes and drove over to pick up his date.  The girl was wearing what he remembers now as an eight-foot tall, super plush Tweetie-Bird costume with bird feet three feet long.  She had to take the feet off to fit into his car, she had to push back and recline the front seat and even then, the costume seemed to fill the entire interior of the car.  Here he was in his sheet and the two of them had nothing but difficulties with the Tweetie costume all evening. After that Halloween, the pastor vowed he would never, ever make a commitment to do anything without an in-person advanced interview with the parties involved.

            It wasn’t until he became a minister and the second Sunday of Easter rolled around that he realized that perhaps, his position on the matter had some flaws.  Wasn’t that all that Thomas was asking, to have a personal interview with Jesus before accepting this resurrection business?  But Christ was asking him to make a commitment, to have faith, without an in-person interview. Pretty much like a blind date, he thought.

            With this, he began his sermon. The disciples had just witnessed the execution of their friend and leader.  Would they be next?  Huddling behind locked doors, they waited.  Thomas had been sent out, possibly for food, so he wasn’t there when the LORD appeared.

            “Peace be with you,” Jesus tells his disciples and leaves.  When Thomas returns, his friends are all over him, “The Lord was here.  The Lord was here.”

            “Nonsense,” says Thomas. “Show me the wounds.  Maybe then I”ll believe you.”  A week later, the men are back in the room with the doors locked, only this time, Thomas is with them. Jesus appears again – the same way – doors are locked, windows closed, he just appears – as if walking through the wall.

            “Peace be with you,” he says.  Then calling Thomas over to him, he invites him to inspect the holes in his hands and the gash in his side and Thomas recognized his LORD and believed.  Blessed is Thomas, we are told, but even more blessed are those of us who can believe without the personal interview.

            The second preacher’s sermon was different. It had to do with hope and breaking down walls.  This second preacher began by noting that in 1487 the Portuguese explorer Bartoleme Dias became the first European to sail all the way to the southern tip of Africa. When he arrived there, he found a peak that jutted out into the water and called it “The Cape of Storms” and some pretty bad storms had occurred here.

When Dias returned to the King of Portugal with his report, the King saw beyond the storms, and recognized that this was the way to get to the markets of India.  He renamed the place, “The Cape of Good Hope.” The moral of the story being to always look forward and not backward. Not to be stuck behind walls – real walls or walls of our own making – but rather to see the possibilities and  to find ways of getting through the walls.

           Many of us, myself included, have at some time found ourselves behind locked doors, behind thick walls, where we have huddled in fear:
• Some have lived in abusive homes where the pain is so great they find themselves emotionally shutting out the rest of the world.
• Some have buried a spouse and in their grief have found themselves frightened by the relatively simple tasks that the spouse performed – whether that was mowing the lawn or paying the bills or cooking meals.
• Some have survived a serious motor vehicle accident and for a time are afraid to ride in a car.
• Some have heard the words of a doctor about a debilitating disease or condition that has caused fear to reign in their lives.
• Some have had their homes invaded by strangers and jump every time they hear a door creak.
            If you have not experienced any of those events, I bet you know someone who has. It takes a great deal of faith in times like these, to recognize and believe in our Risen Lord when he moves through those walls to meet us and says,

            “Peace be with you.”

‘Peace by with you.” And we feel the Peace of Christ envelop us and experience a personal resurrection.

            The third sermon asked the question “Was Thomas a coward?”  Answer:  “No, for sure Thomas was not a coward.”  The disciples knew that the religious authorities were waiting for them in Jerusalem and tried to talk Jesus out of going there, but Jesus was insistent.  It was Thomas who, when the rest of the disciples cowered, said, "Let us then also go to Jerusalem, that we may die with him!" For Thomas, life meant little without his Lord. If his Lord should die, then Thomas wished to go to the grave with him.  No, Thomas was not a coward. Interesting that this preacher chose to explore this question.

            A fourth approach to the story of doubting Thomas was to acknowledge that we all have our doubts.  Life certainly has more questions than answers. One such question might be, if we doubt the underlying message of the Scriptures, what keeps bringing us back to church.  Why don’t we just walk the other way.  Why didn’t Thomas just peal off and go fishing?  It’s the “community” thing again.  In Christian community, when one of us falters, there are others there to keep us steady, keep us hoping, believing, keep us going.

            “Just when I feel that God can't possibly answer prayers,” this minister says, “someone will tell me about a prayer that was answered. Just when I find myself bitter that human beings will ever do any good, one of you tells me of a complete stranger doing some good deed. Just when I find myself questioning God's very existence, someone will tell me about the deep sense they have of the presence of God in their life.”

            Four is enough. Seven is way too many points to include in one sermon.  You will just have to have faith in me when I tell you that the remaining three sermons also approached the message in the Doubting Thomas story in distinctly different ways.

            For those of you who are taking notes, the themes of the four sermons I have mentioned, include:

            1.         making a commitment without an advance, personal interview (or Jesus is not Tweetie Bird);

            2.         Christ moves through all kinds of walls of fear to reach us with his message, “Peace by with you,” when we recognize and believe in him;

            3.         Thomas was not a coward, in fact, he was one of the bravest and most loyal of the disciples. The inference here is that Thomas should not be judged negatively for his doubt, and neither are we; and

            4.         We all have periods of doubt, but as Christian community we can bolster each other during our fragile times, and model our faith during the vibrant times.

            Building on this last thought, I’d like to share with you some material Kate shared with me this week – having to do with the power of story.

             A line from the book, Living Gently in a Violent World by Jean Vernier, says, “What we have in common isn’t an idea but stories. And I cannot tell my story well unless I also hear your story.”

Sharing of stories is one of the most important parts of spiritual formation groups. Hearing how God has worked and works within everyone’s lives cultivates both humility and awe.  So, for me, this Easter Season has been particularly meaningful because I have recognized the blessing in the divergent stories about the Easter Event. Last week, we talked about the fact that the resurrection was described with four different sets of details in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  This week, we take one story from the Bible, the story of Doubting Thomas, and realize that seven different preachers developed seven different messages from it, all valid, but quite different from one another.

Each of our lives presents a unique set of circumstances and a unique story. We may experience the world differently; we may score differently on various personality tests; but the message of Jesus is there for each of us – tailored, if you will, just for us.

“So, he walks through walls, does he?”  Thomas had asked the week before.  “Show me.”

            So, Jesus makes a special trip back, it would seem, just for Thomas.

“Peace be with you,” he tells Thomas, and he shows him his hands. And Thomas received his blessing.

May it be true for each of us.  Peace be with you.  (And also with you.)  Amen.

 

 

 

BENEDICTION

Peace be with you.

Peace go with you.

By your faith, may you experience the Peace of Christ,

And through the Community of Christ, may you pass it on.

Amen.

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