Saturday, April 11, 2015

Poor Thomas and the Chai Latte...

Thanks go out to D. Mark Davis and Lance Pape for their scholarship in helping build this sermon.

Honorable mention to my current soundtrack for the audio caffeine:

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 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.”
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.” 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 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.”
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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Poor Thomas. Can you imagine being alive during the greatest event in human, history, being one of the people closest to the epicenter, able to see the resurrected Christ in person... and after three days holed up in a stuffy, smelly, dark upper room in the middle of Jerusalem, shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of people scared to death that the soldiers will be coming for them next, you pick this moment to go out for a chai latte?

I don't know that a chai latte is the reason Thomas left, but it's why I woulda left. And I really identify with Thomas in a lot of ways, and I think that's not only OK, I think that maybe the Scriptures encourage us to do just that.

After all, while he is listed in Matthew and Luke, Thomas doesn't act or speak in any other Gospel account than John's. What's more, he doesn't really have a name. “Thomas” means “twin” in Hebrew... so if we go with the reading, it's “this guy, The Twin, I mean, they called him The Twin, was not with them when Jesus came...” What better place to insert your name, my name? “But John Harrison wasn't with them when Jesus came.” After all, I wasn't. I am a couple thousand years too late.

There are other ways I tend to identify with Thomas. He was more courageous than I am, to be sure, but he was passionate, and somewhat reactionary, speaking with his heart more than he spoke with his head.

Here’s what I mean: We only hear from Thomas three times in the Gospel of John. When, in the 11th chapter, Jesus sets off toward Bethany, it is apparent to every one of the disciples that it’s far too close to Jerusalem, far too close to those who want Jesus killed. Everyone listening to Jesus knows that for him to go to Lazarus is to sign his own death warrant. Thomas is the one who stands up, dusts himself off, and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” There is no doubt in those words, but resolution, even courage. The worst is yet to come, yes, but we’ve come this far with Him, let’s finish the journey.

In Chapter 14, at the Last Supper, at one point Jesus says to his disciples, “I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” It is left to Thomas to blurt the one question which had to be pounding in the disciples’ heads: “Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Thomas is not rebuked for “doubting,” but is rewarded with one of the clearest Scriptural statements about who Jesus is and why He came to live and die among humankind: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

And the Scriptures never, ever call him “Doubting Thomas.” We've done that, and unfairly, I think. After all, Peter and John had seen the empty tomb, Mary had seen the risen Christ there in the burial garden, the travelers on the road to Emmaus had walked and talked with him, had seen him revealed in the breaking of the bread. And there in that room where Thomas was not, every one of the disciples had seen Jesus, had seen the wounds the nails and the spear had left, had heard his words, had felt the blessing of his breath.

Thomas wasn't there. And it may have been deeper than him just stepping out for a breath of fresh air. One of my favorite go-to resources for preparing the sermon every week is Rev. D. Mark Davis, who runs a blog where he translates the Gospel reading every week from the original Greek. He points out something very interesting with this week's reading. Greek has a lot of nuances and tenses, and when we read, “But Thomas... was not with them when Jesus came,” we interpret it as Thomas just being physically not present. And if the Greek had used what's called the aorist tense, that would be a solid interpretation. The writer of John's Gospel uses what's called the imperfect tense for what we translate as “was not with them,” which might just mean that he was not only not there physically, but emotionally, spiritually, as well. Thomas, the reactionary, the passionate, speak-with-his-heart, act before you think guy, saw Jesus die (albeit, like the rest of the disciples, from a safe distance), and gave up.

Maybe he didn't even go back to the room with the others. Maybe he walked off in another direction. Maybe he wanted to be alone in his pain, his mourning, his loss. He just wasn't there. Wasn't interested.

This makes even more sense when you couple with it the fact that, when we read the phrase “...the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord...” the word translated “told him” is also imperfect tense... perhaps better translated, “were telling him,” as in not a single act, but an ongoing activity. Maybe the conversation was about bringing Thomas back into the community.

This excites me, and I'll tell you why: Jesus breathes on the ten remaining disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Perhaps the first work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church is forgiveness and reconciliation, and perhaps it plays out in the narrative with Thomas, this broken, mourning man who has given up.

With this interpretation, the disciples never give up on Thomas, and he finally throws down the gauntlet. “Fine, I get it, you believe because you've seen him. But unless I get the same – unless I see what you've seen, unless I can touch his wounds, I can't. I won't. Take it or leave it.”

So, follow this to its logical conclusion. Faced with a take it or leave it choice in reconciling with Thomas, the disciples took it. A week later, they were all in the room, with the door closed and locked. Thomas was with them.

Yes, Jesus appears, and gives Thomas what he demands. Yes, Thomas responds, in what I imagine to be typical style: blurting “my Lord and my God!” But he was able to do this because he was present. And he was present because, even though he didn't agree with them... even though he desired more than just hearsay evidence... the community of believers let him come on his own terms... and he was willing to be there.

Thomas got his proof. Good for him, huh?

I admit it. I'm kind of jealous of Thomas when it all comes down to it. After all, there's nothing abnormal, nothing twenty-first century about the desire for experiential proof. And Thomas was not the only disciple who wouldn’t take someone else’s word for it. Mary announced the good news of resurrection to the disciples, and they most definitely didn't take her word for it. When Jesus came to them that evening, he found the doors locked in fear, and he offered to each of those present the same signs that Thomas would later demand.

Proof is what everyone prefers. But we must come to terms with our place in history. God, in God’s manifold wisdom, has not ordained that we should “be there” no matter how sincerely and audaciously we wish it. We live in an age of wonders, no doubt, but when it comes to the resurrection we walk by faith and not by sight.

Instead, God has given us the chance to be blessed according to the last of the beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor,” said Jesus, and yet the least well off among us are wealthy by any realistic historical or global standard. “Blessed are you who hunger,” and yet we are only hungry when we are dieting. “Blessed are the meek,” and yet we can scarcely avoid pride at all that we have achieved.

No, this last beatitude may be our best shot at the designation “blessed of God.” Blessed are they who can’t be absolutely sure. Blessed are they who believe the hearsay. Blessed are the eyes of faith that continue in hope despite the frustrations and ambiguities. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Alleluia, amen.

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