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Pentecost in the Streets
Acts 2: 1-21
May 19, 2013
Pentecost is one of the greatest of the Christian celebrations. But lately it’s become too commercial, I think. Easter was barely over before the stores started carrying the red stuff--tongues of fire decorations, and candy flames, wind machines. And we start singing those Pentecost songs so early—practically right after Easter. So by the time we get to Pentecost, I’m so burned out on the Pentecost songs, the Pentecost candy, and don’t even get me started about all the red. I’m done.
This is not actually how it is with Pentecost, of course. In fact, I think we don’t pay nearly enough attention to this wonderfully challenging day. Pentecost is a celebration of the day that the Holy Spirit came to the followers of Jesus.
In the book of Acts, the followers of Jesus were gathered together in a room, and there they heard a loud noise. It sounded like it was rushing wind coming straight from heaven, but it was inside—and that sound filled the room.
Then, from within that noise came what appeared to be tongues that looked like fire.
These are two rather confusing metaphors for the Spirit. And that seems appropriate. This is not the gentle dove descending from heaven when Jesus was baptized, though it is that same Spirit. This is a loud sound, and a strange vision of something that appeared above the followers of Jesus. Both the wind sound and the fire vision appear—wind and fire being powerful and dangerous elements—and those things seemed to drive the followers of Jesus out into the streets. They were driven out, not by fear like when they were at the corss or when they saw the empty tomb. They were driven into the streets because they felt compelled to speak, compelled to share.
And then—out in the streets—comes the speaking in multiple languages. People from all over the known world were speaking their native languages and dialects. It was—like fire and wind—the kind of thing that strikes fear into the hearts of ordered people, people who have political and social power, people who are accustomed to having control of a situation.
The behavior of people in this story—well, it’s certainly not acceptable behavior in church. All this talking in other languages. All these loud noises getting in the way of our ordered worship. And tongue shaped fire dancing on people’s heads. Absolutely uncouth.
And yet, these followers of Jesus get pushed out into the streets by the Spirit. They are pushed out to tell—in whatever language they had—the words of faith, given to them by Jesus, given to them by the spirit in that room.
This is another of the radical events that happened to the followers of Jesus, just 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection, and just 10 days after Jesus ascended back into heaven. This is the cherry on top of the resurrection. Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ is sending the Spirit to us.
On this Pentecost day—the day when we remember the gift of the Spirit, and this day when we baptize a new member—I wonder what drives us out into the street. What sends us out of the walls of this church with evangelical fervor? Are we telling others about what we have seen and what we experience here? Are we doing something with the Spirit that’s moving around in this place?
The Spirit is here, friends. It blows through this room like a rush of mighty wind. It’s force threatens to knock us over some Sundays. The Spirit dances around us—I’ve never seen it look like fire or like a tongue, but I have seen it dance around the communion table as we sing.
But, the Spirit’s work is limited if we don’t open the doors and windows and let her do her thing. The Spirit’s work is limited when we don’t run out into the streets and talk about what we know and have seen.
What began with the rushing wind and the tongues of fire from heaven, was completed in the speaking in the streets.
Pentecost is not well celebrated in the Christian tradition—not like Easter or Christmas. Like Pentecost, these well loved holidays are pretty strange—we celebrate God incarnate being born into the world as a helpless baby at Christmas.
That is strange.
We celebrate God incarnate coming back to life—being resurrected and fully human—at Easter.
That is Strange. These are outrageous things to celebrate.
Today we celebrate Pentecost, the remembrance of a day when something that sounded like wind and looked like fire in the shape of tongues entered the room where the followers of Jesus were, and sent them out into the streets to proclaim in their own languages the message of hope and new life. How beautifully strange.
We celebrate Pentecost today—not in the kitchy way we often celebrate Christmas and Easter. We don’t celebrate with cheap chocolate bunnies, or hard boiled eggs. We don’t celebrate with pine trees in our living room decorated with tinsel and blinking lights. We don’t celebrate with parties, or gifts exchanged. Today we celebrate Pentecost in the best way I can think of—we baptize on of our own. We hear Charlie’s public confession of faith, we bless him with water in the name of God the parent, Jesus the incarnate one, and the powerful Holy Spirit. We celebrate by sharing communion together—by giving and receiving bread and juice, by singing around the communion table.
But the celebration of Pentecost will not be complete until we take it to the streets, until we share the good news in whatever language we speak, until we go into the world and talk about that which we have learned here at this table.
Today, we are challenged by this celebration to take that which we know in here out there in the streets. Maybe it’s in speaking truth to power, like our Philadelphia youth are doing when they marched 2,000 strong to city hall on Friday. Maybe it’s by bringing others into this safe place. Perhaps it’s by creatively sharing what we have with others, so that all will have access to those resources that we have.
We are challenged on Pentecost to bring God’s healing vision into the streets. And in doing that the scripture is again fulfilled. Our sons and daughters will prophesy, our young people will see visions of what will be, and our old people will dream dreams. And we will be God’s prophetic people. Let it be so. AMEN.
The world is a shiny place. It sparkes and glimmers. Especially this time of year, when the sun reflects off the water, when the sun gives light to the spring flowers and the colors pop.
The world is a shiny place. It’s warmth compels us into the light, calls us to shake out the winter cobwebs, to feel hope, to sense the possibilities.
The world is a shiny place.
I want to believe that. I really, really do. But this week has been hard on my optimism.
This week, while listening to my son’s school orchestra rehearsal, I heard three teens from the high school talking. Two seniors were telling a freshman student , “Next year, you won’t have music or art or team sports.” I watched these high schoolers talk about this, while I listened to the middle school orchestra saw out the peppy pop tune, “I feel good”. All this while I held in my hands a long list of the names of government officials given that I need to send letters to, pleading with them, begging them to let the public school system continue at current funding. A funding that is already pathetic.
The world is a shiny place?
Meanwhile, in the federal government, the sequester has impacted millions of poor people in this country—meals on wheels, and other food funding is slashed, head start funding has been cut, many federal employees are furloughed or terminated. That has not impacted congress. But, when the airlines are delayed because of the sequester, the congress jumps into action. They said that they could not have travel being disturbed. Food and education, on the other hand…
The world doesn’t feel too shiny. It feels tarnished and beaten down.
In the book of Revelation, the spirit gives a vision to John of what will be. I probably say this a lot, but this truly is one of my favorite text in the bible. It’s the last story in the bible, and it speaks to the first story. The bible starts in the garden but ends in a city. A city with a garden in it. A city with the tree of life, where people can freely eat from that tree whenever they choose, without fear of punishment.
That image alone is healing for me. It’s a word of hope for this city dweller, who is sometimes beaten down by the difficult aspect of city life. Like poverty and inequality, lack of resources, and being in close proximity to a variety of people; people that I have to love, but don’t always like.
But there is much more to this story than just a hopeful image.
In this story from the book of Revelation, John is taken to the top of a high mountain, and there the spirit points out the holy city of Jerusalem descending from the heavens. They had to go up to the top of the mountain to see this happening. In this beautiful, shining city, there is no need for a place of worship. Because God is in the city, and the city is lit, shining because of the glory of God.
Not only is the city lit up by God and God’s shiny radiance, but those who come into the city are also shining and glorious. God and God’s people together bring good things to this shiny city.
Perhaps this is my own ridiculous take on things, but sometimes life being too good and wonderful sounds kindof dull. But, we are assured in this text that this city is not a homogeneous or boring place. God’s glorious city is made up of many nations, many peoples, and many languages. This is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city, and it is flourishing. The gates of the city are wide open. They are never shut in the day, and there is never night.
And from the center of the city flows the river of life. The water is clean, and runs through the streets of the city. And the fruit which is nourished by this clean water then nourishes the people of God .
This holy city of Jerusalem is not based in fear. It is not about trying to protect or hold things back. It’s about openness, flow, prosperity, enough for everyone.
This is a pretty exciting image of a city. And it’s the opposite of the city as we know it.
In our lives, we spend so much time keeping things out, protecting what is ours, closing our doors and gates, keeping water out of our basements and streets. Water flowing down the street would make news in our city—and not in a good way. Gates left open, doors lefts open—they are all signs of disaster or stupidity. We can’t have these gates and doors open. We must hold on, protect what is ours, be careful of the bad people out there.
But in this Holy city of God, the city illuminated by God’s glory, and by the glory of God’s people, unclean things don’t enter. People bring into the city their glory and honor. Good things come into the city and good thing leave.
There’s so much from this text that is appealing. The open gates, the abundance, the difference that is welcome among all people. The shining, unmistakable presence of God.
But, what is also appealing about this text is our role in it. The rulers of the earth will bring their glory to the city. All people will bring their glory and honor into the holy city of Jerusalem. God will be light for the people of the city of Jerusalem and together, God and the people will reign forever.
This co-creation, co-glory work is ours with God. It is reminiscent of the Genesis story. God created all things and everything was good. God put humans in the garden to “till it and keep it”—to care for it. And in that garden a river flowed and nourished the land, and that land nourished the people.
In the creation story, God gave the people food, and there was no shame in eating the food, until the people were not honest with God and themselves. Then there was shame. But in the new Jerusalem, there is no shame in eating any of the fruit. It’s all accessible. It’s all food that we need. All are fed. It is glorious.
This says clearly what is said in the creation story—that we are co-creators with God. But, that’s something that we often miss in the creation story, so it’s reinforced by John in the final vision given to him by God. Together, we make that new Jerusalem a shiny city. Together— by the light of God’s glory—we make that city a beautiful, wonderful and open place. We are co creators in the reign of God.
Lest you feel a little overwhelmed by this whole co-creator idea, and lest your perfectionist tendencies flare up, let me remind you of what is in the Genesis story, but is not in the revelation story: fear. Adam and Eve were afraid, but here in the city of God, no one is afraid.
Remember friends, this is Easter season, the season of resurrection. This is the season where we remember what Jesus did and how Jesus lived after the resurrection. He lived without fear, without vengeance, and he taught us about what it’s like to live with our gates open.
With the news about the school district and the sequesters these last few weeks, I have urges to lock tightly the gates of the city, or to move away from the city altogether. How are we to live in this world?
We live with arms open, we live with hope, we live as co-creators in the reign of God. We eat from the tree of life, and drink from the clean waters it gives.
We—the people of God, co-creators in this new Jerusalem—may not fully see this city, but it is coming in the clouds in all its glory.
And the world—though it feels tarnished today—will be a shiny place, free of fear, free of shame, and full of God’s radiant, glory. AMEN
Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6
I work for a dying institution.
It’s true. While our numbers here are growing, in the rest of North America, the church is dying. People in this nation have been fearing this and grieving the decline in prominence of the church for some time, and statistics confirm it—the church and its influence is shrinking.
I come from a family of men who also worked for dying institutions. My father and grandfather both worked for a coal burning plant in South Jersey. It was directly across the Delaware River from DuPont’s Chemical plant—it was quite a site of pollution, and the pollution hovered over that corner of New Jersey and Delaware like a dark crown.
My father and grandfather were union guys, and fought for the right to have fair pay, good healthcare and a pension. Much of that has also gone by the wayside, but not for their lack of trying.
My other grandfather was an itinerant farmer, working small acreages at a time. He eventually had to stop this work when he could no longer support his family of ten, even with the free labor that came with a large family. The farming industry was taking over the small farms in my grandfather’s community, and he couldn’t compete.
I come from a long line of people who work for systems and institutions that are dying or nearly dead.
I’m working with two biblical texts in the sermon today—our readings from Acts and Revelation. And, they have something to say about the dying church.
In the book of Acts, we hear the story of Peter’s vision of the sheet full of “unclean” animals. This may be the first time you’ve heard this story, but it’s actually the third time Peter has told this story so far in the book of Acts. Apparently, it’s a story that bears repeating—often.
In this version of the story, the Hebrew believers from Jerusalem took issue with Peter visiting the Gentile believers and eating with them. The version from the inclusive bible, printed in your bulletin, says “So you have been visiting the Gentiles and eating with them, have you?” I actually prefer the New Revised Standard Version’s interpretation a little better—“Why do you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
Ever since I have been able to understand what the word, “uncircumcised” meant, I’ve wondered—how on earth could the Hebrew believers tell who was circumcised and who was not? How humiliating and derogatory to differentiate a people group based on whether or not a man was circumcised. But I think this differentiation is derogatory with intention. The Jerusalem believers were not thrilled that this new group was part of the early church. There was a sense that the unclean were coming into the church, and that was not ok with the Jewish followers of Jesus. This message was not for them, was it?
So, Peter told the story of his vision—his vision of the unclean animals coming down from heaven in a white sheet, and the voice of God saying, “Kill and eat, Peter.” And Peter finished his story by saying to the skeptical followers in Jerusalem, “Who am I to hinder God?”
Who am I to hinder God? That’s a powerful statement, made more powerful by the Hebrew meaning of the name of God, a meaning that the Jewish followers of Jesus knew well. The name of God—YHVH—means “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” Or—to say it another way—I cannot be hindered. I—your God—cannot be contained.
Our second text—the one from Revelation—is, I believe, saying a similar thing to us about God. Here the writer is talking to the future church, “See—said God—I am making all things new.” God said this to a persecuted church, a martyred people, who were being killed for their faith, and for following the way of Jesus. To this dying church, God said, “See, I am making all things new.” That is a God that cannot be hindered—not by death or division.
The story in the book of Acts, and words of John in the book of Revelation are words to the church. They are words to those early followers who were wondering why this church looked so much different than what they imagined. They are words to followers of Christ who perhaps thought that Christianity would be more victorious and less dangerous and less bloody than it had become. And to these new followers, God said, “don’t hold God back.” “See, I am making all things new.”
Today, the future of the church feels rather uncertain. So, the words from the scripture are more important than ever. Who are we to hinder God? God is making all things new.
The church of the future will not look anything like we expect it to. It will not be what we hope or think it will be. It will be what it will be. God will do what God will do. Who are we to hinder God, to stand in the way of God’s plan?
But, I’m afraid that we often do stand in the way. We hinder God by worrying about who will pass on our legacy—who will keep the church going just as we have. We hinder God by fretting about who will tell the story, who will keep this alive. But who are we to hinder God? Behold, God is making all things new.
We hinder God by worrying about a person’s citizenship, much like the early Christians worried about who was or was not circumcised. We hinder God by worrying about a person’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, marital status and class. We hinder God by judging our fellow brothers and sister’s Mennonite credentials by their last name, by what Mennonite institution they may or may not have attended, and by who they may be related to. But who are we to hinder God? God is making all things new.
The church that is becoming is much like the resurrection—it’s not what we expect it will be. Like the resurrection, it is messy, frightening, and leaves us fearful. Like the resurrection, it is filled with unknowns.
But, like the resurrection, God is not hindered by us. God cannot be contained. God is making all things new. God is not contained by our rules about who should be in the church, what the church should look like, or how the church should be worshipping. God is not stopped by our rules about citizenship, ethnicity, status or class. Our rules and boundaries do not even register to God.
My father and grandfather worked for a dying industry. And—to be completely honest—I’m glad that plant eventually shut down. The problem of pollution is getting better day by day in my home state of New Jersey. The water is getting a little bit cleaner and the air is a little less toxic. Through new technology, cleaner forms of energy are being produced in my home state. Things are being made new.
My farming grandfather had to find other work when the big farms took over. But new movements are responding to the big farms—community supported agriculture, the local food movement, farmers markets—the farming industry is slowly being made new.
Like my father, and both of my grandfathers, I work for a dying institution. The fact that you are here today probably means that you are too. Perhaps it should worry me that the church is dying. Maybe I should be looking for a different line of work. That should have me trying to plug up the cracks in the structures, trying to save what’s left. But, honestly I’m not too worried about it. This institution is falling apart. It’s failing. But, God will make the church what God chooses to make it. God will make all things new.
Who are we to hinder God?
Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday in the Christian calendar. This is the Sunday when the church remembers that God—our great Shepherd—cares for us deeply.
One of our texts today—Psalm 23—focuses on the Good shepherd. But the Acts text does not. It focuses instead on the resurrection of Tabitha. Now Tabitha was an amazing person—she was known in both the Jewish and Greek community. We know this because of her name. Or rather her names. Her name in Aramaic is Tabitha. In Greek it’s Dorcas. Her name in both languages means “Gazelle.”
This text from Acts comes up during the Easter season, on this 4th Sunday of Easter, and while it’s not about the resurrection of Jesus, it is about the resurrection of believers, and it tells some things about God, our Good Shepherd.
In this story from the book of Acts, as in all the stories from the Bible, details are very important. So, I’d like to look this morning at some of these details, as a way to better understand what this story means.
First of all, did you notice that Tabitha/Dorcas was referred to as a disciple? Tabitha was a follower of Jesus, devoted to what is later called diaconal ministry—she fed the poor, and made clothing for them. She was active in the work of justice for which Jesus was so vocal. She used her gifts to further the work of the church, and to embody the power of Jesus’ words.
And this female disciple was known in both the Jewish and Greek communities. She was known in this metropolitan multicultural community in both worlds, and it appears that she was much beloved in both communities.
This story is reminiscent of a story in Luke where Jesus resurrected Jairus’ daughter. Jesus went to the home of Jairus, a Roman military officer, went into Jairus’ daugher’s room where mourners were weeping and crying for this dead child. And Jesus said to the child, “Talitha Cum.” Little child, get up. And she got up and ate—proving that she was truly alive again. She was healed—brought back to life by Jesus.
Peter went to the home of Tabitha, went to her room where the mourners were crying, and showing Peter the things Tabitha made for them, showing Peter her acts of charity towards them. Peter went up to Tabitha’s body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Which—while I’m not an expert in Aramaic, I think Peter would say in Aramaic, “Tabitha, Cum.” I find it interesting that Tabitha meaning “gazelle” and Talitha meaning “little girl” are so similar. And Luke, who wrote both the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, is intentional with this comparison. I believe these connections and these stories are similar for a reason. In the story of Tabitha, Luke is pointing back to this encounter between Jairus’ daughter and Jesus, while telling us the story of Peter healing Tabitha.
What’s similar about this text is the method of healing—calling people to get up, to be transformed and brought into new life. What’s different is, of course, who is doing the resurrecting. Jesus resurrected Jarius’ daughter, and Peter resurrected Tabitha, after Easter, after Ascension, and after Pentecost.
Talitha Cum. Tabitha Cum.
In the similarities and differences of this text I hear the call to the church today. Jesus performed resurrections. Jesus received resurrection. Peter performed resurrection for Tabitha, and Peter received the power of the resurrection in knowing Jesus.
But, I must admit that this has been a difficult week to be thinking about resurrection, to be contemplating living into resurrection. There has been too much death and violence. The violence of the Boston Marathon, and the “manhunt” that followed. The unimaginable explosion in Texas that flattened a town. The flooding in Chicago . The failure of the most mild gun legislation in Congress—a legislation that would require background checks for people who buy and transfer guns. It’s been a rough week for our nation. It’s been a violent week. It’s been a week of destruction by people and accidents, by our leaders and by natural disasters.
And yet, we as the church are called to live the resurrection. To act as if the resurrection has happened, is happening, and will happen again. To ourselves call people up—using the words and actions of Jesus—and empower others to rise to transformed living. To be resurrection in the life of the church.
It’s hard to feel like resurrection when all around us is bad news, bad things, and sometimes even bad people.
Death is messy and at times, filled with fear and terror. But here’s the thing—so is resurrection. Good Friday was a day of terror—it was the worst of humanity in all its fear and betrayal that nailed Jesus to the cross. It was the worst of humanity that left Jesus alone to suffer, and refused to stand up for him. It was the worst of humanity that scapegoated and convicted an innocent man, to prevent dealing with the truth of his message.
And three days later was resurrection, but it had its own fear. It was a fear that had the disciples running and hiding. It was fear that had them convinced that Jesus’ resurrection was a hoax. It was fear that made the disciples need to see it to believe it.
We often describe resurrection as a new birth. But, birth is not pretty. Birth is bloody, messy, scary, painful, and sometimes quite dangerous. We come into life covered in the stuff of earth, the most unclean parts of life. That is our resurrection. We are not resurrected above the stuff of life, but to live deep into it.
Like Tabitha, we are resurrected into a messy broken, hurting world. But we spring forth into life, from deep within the worst that humans and death and sin can do to us.
Resurrection is not random acts of kindness. It is deep sustained compassion, even to those we judge to be undeserving. Resurrection is not hate and stereotyping. It is unflinching love in the midst of hateful circumstances. It is not, “I hope he gets what he deserved.” It is prayer for even the “bad guys” because we know God works with the worst of us. Resurrection is not running away from the scary stuff of life. It is always running towards, every day moving into those places of fear, knowing that God walks with us in the valley, knowing that God never avoids the valley, but moves through it with us.
Resurrection is not just by Jesus. It’s not just for Jesus. It is by God’s people, and for God’s people. It is not avoiding death or the other awful parts of life. It is walking towards it, calling out to each other—Talitha Cum, Tabitha Cum—get up. Take my hand. Let’s walk towards our fear together. There is resurrection. There is hope. There is new life.
Even though we walk through the darkest valley, we will not fear evil. For God is with us, and we are in this together, being transformed, even while we are surrounded by the gritty stuff of life. AMEN.
April 7, 2013
Two years ago, I attended the Mennonite national convention, held in Pittsburgh. There, the subject of homosexuality was at a fevered pitch. The convention and denominational leaders decided to hold a “conversation room” where participants would be led in respectful conversations on difficult, contentious matters to the wider church.
I went to the first conversation about sexuality, and got there late. And they were out of room in the allotted space, so many of us who were also late tried to have an ad hoc conversation in the area outside of the meeting room. It was a disaster of a conversation—which is a story for another sermon perhaps—but there was moment that really stuck out for me in the otherwise disastrous conversation.
I was in a group with an older woman who wore a covering. While we were struggling to talk about scripture and sexuality, this woman looked at me and said sincerely, “So, when I read the bible, I understand that it is true, but when you read it, you don’t believe it’s true?”
Her words took my breath away. “No,” I said, “that’s not what I believe. I believe that every word in the bible is true, but I think you and I understand that truths of the scripture differently.”
That was a moment of breaking open for both of us. I had some compassion for her misunderstanding (because I once shared her perspective on people like me), and I think she realized that I wasn’t being flip about scripture. That moment gave us opportunity to talk together at length.
It turns out that I knew this woman from a long time ago. She and my dad grew up together in the same small, conservative Mennonite community in South Jersey. I used to visit her when I’d go to the Cowtown flea market with my dad—and we’d get donuts and shoe fly pie from her Dutch bakery there. We talked about growing up in South Jersey, our families, and parenting. The conversation went far beyond where it started, amidst a difficult and strained conversation around sexuality. By the end of our long conversation, I felt that I knew her much better.
I’ve been thinking about that moment with my conservative Mennonite sister as I’ve read Thomas’ story this week. How easy it is to misunderstand someone until you’ve come face to face with them until you’ve really gotten to know them. Thomas is terribly misunderstood in the Christian tradition. He’s become the scapegoat for doubt, a victim of people that fear questions, and fear seeing and understanding the story in a different way. We’ve been trained, in some schools of interpretation, to see Thomas as the most incredulous, the most arrogantly disbelieving of all the disciples. So, let’s take some time this morning, and break it open, and get to know Thomas a little better.
There are two references to Thomas that take place before this text from John 20.
In John 11, when Jesus was on his way to heal Lazarus, the disciples were not thrilled about Jesus going there. It was an out of the way trip. They were convinced that Lazarus was only asleep and would awaken momentarily. And they knew that Jesus’ life was in danger if he went and healed Lazarus. But, Thomas said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, so that we may die with him.” Thomas seemed to know the trajectory of Jesus ministry—it would lead to death. This does not seem like the arrogant disbelieving disciple we thought we knew. This disciple knew what Jesus was about, and he was not afraid to follow him, even to his death.
In John 14, when Jesus said to the disciples, “In Abba God’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again, and I will take you to myself, so that where I am there you may be also. And you know the place I am going.”
The disciples were confused about what Jesus was saying to them. But, Thomas was the only one to ask the question. “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How will we know the way?” Thomas’ question was honest and direct. He didn’t pretend to know what Jesus was talking about. He asked a good questions—a question that I would have wanted to have the answer to, but may have been too afraid to ask.
And Jesus responded to the question by saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” That answer didn’t make things any less murky, but at least Thomas and the disciples were clear that they were following Jesus.
The last time we run into Thomas is there in that Upper Room. The doors were all locked, because the disciples were afraid. They feared to go outside, that they like Jesus might be killed. But Thomas–who we can assume was not afraid because he was not in the room—Thomas did not see Jesus the first time he appeared to the disciples there. And because he was out—presumably getting supplies, or scoping out the post crucifixion environment—he missed Jesus the first time he revealed himself to the fear-filled disciples. Jesus breathed his holy calm on the disciples. No revenge, no questions, no anger from Jesus. Just “peace be with you.”
But Thomas, the one who was out of the room, already being fearless, came back to learn that he had missed Jesus. He did not get to see Jesus in resurrected form.
And Thomas didn’t believe it. Perhaps he thought that the disciples had seen a ghost. He didn’t want to see the ghost of Jesus past. He wanted to see the fleshy Jesus, the impure broken body of his crucified Rabbi. He needed to see the medieval gash on Jesus’ side, and the scabbing, oozing holes in his hands and feet. The ghost of crucified Jesus wasn’t going to fill the void. He missed his living friend, his teacher.
Jesus returned to his disciples later that week, and marked by the empire, breathed PAX on them. When Thomas saw Jesus, he didn’t have to put his hands in the wounds to know that it was Jesus, in the flesh. He saw the wounds. He saw the gash. He knew Jesus was no ghost, but was the real, alive fleshy, transformed Jesus.
And Thomas, seeing the flesh of Jesus, the real-ness of Jesus, transformed by the cross, but still alive, declared that which the Gospel writer declared in John 1: In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. And the word became flesh.”
Thomas said, “My Lord and my God.”
And then, it seems as if the gospel writer turns to you, the listener, and says this: 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 might come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God….
A little word about the Greek. When it says “so that you may come to believe” it also can mean “so that you may continue to believe.” Which says something about Thomas, doesn’t it? Thomas already believed, but his encounter with the fleshy risen Christ gave him hope to continue to believe.
This is not a text about Doubting Thomas. This is not a text about a disciple that couldn’t understand what was happening. This is a text about fearless Thomas, faithful Thomas, wondering and questioning Thomas. This is a story about a follower of Jesus that engaged him in a way that no other disciple did—he asked direct questions, he understood the consequences of Jesus ministry, and he had faith enough to leave the upper room when the others were too afraid.
But until we get to know Thomas, we accept this notion that he’s a doubter, and that doubting is bad. Until we look at the scope of the story, we think that Jesus is admonishing Thomas. But, stick with Thomas, get to know him, and you see that he is Jesus’ faithful follower. Read the story all the way through and see the great compassion and openness that Jesus had to Thomas’ questions.
We often meet people like a snapshot. Our opinions of them are based on our brief encounters. Sometimes we can develop unrealistically positive or negative views of someone based on one brief moment with a them.
But what we see is not often what is real or true. It’s not the whole picture, the fullness of a person’s personality, until we spend time with them.
The time spent with my conservative Mennonite sister, opened my eyes and hers. In the same way, time spent in the story—with Jesus, the disciples and Thomas—fills in the story of these characters and gives us a better understanding of everyone in that upper room that day. Jesus was no ghost, but a real in-the-flesh transformed by crucifixion Jesus. Thomas was less of a doubter, and more of a believer than he is given credit for.
I pray that this Easter season—this celebration of resurrection—is a time for us to see the faithfulness of Thomas, the resurrection of Jesus, and the hope and new life in each of us. May we be surprised and delighted by what we find. AMEN.
What can I do?