Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter 4/11

          Every group needs someone who isn’t afraid to ask questions.  I’m not one of those people.  When I was in school I was someone who would almost never ask a question even if I had no idea what was going on, partly because I was shy, even more because I was afraid of looking dumb, afraid of being embarrassed.  But I sure was happy and grateful for those who would ask the questions I was afraid to ask.

          We need those people and in John’s gospel, Thomas kind of plays that role.  When Jesus approached the end of his time on earth and tried to prepare the disciples for what was going to happen he told them that he was going away and he said, “You know the way to the place where I am going.”  You can picture blank faced disciples looking at him thinking, “What is he talking about?” but only Thomas was bold enough to say, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?” 

          Today, it’s not so much a question from Thomas, it’s a statement, and this time it’s not for the other disciples that he makes the statement, it’s for us.  “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.”  As a result, he is forever known as Doubting Thomas even though all he did was express a thought that anyone who has ever considered the significance of Jesus has shared at some point.  As rational creatures, we wish there was more than just taking someone else’s word that all this is true.  We wish we had the physical proof that Thomas wanted, proof that the other disciples apparently had.  I suspect that this is the gospel lesson on the second Sunday of Easter every year because everyone can relate with Thomas.

          It’s usually at this point though, that I and, I think, many pastors begin to rehabilitate Thomas and identify him as “faithful” Thomas because of the profound confession of faith he finally comes to when he says, “My Lord and my God.” It is as compelling a statement of faith as we ever get about Jesus from anyone in the Bible, but today I’m going to be a little slower to rehabilitate Thomas because there is something that he can be faulted for.       

          Let’s go back a little further in the story, to the raising of Lazarus which in John is kind of the dress rehearsal for Easter.  It’s in this story that we get the first mention of Thomas.  If you remember how it goes, upon hearing that Lazarus was ill Jesus didn’t rush to see him right away, and then when he did decide to go the disciples were nervous about it because they knew there were people along the way who were out to get him.  Jesus insisted that he was going anyway and that was when Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  So the assumption is that Thomas was there.  He saw Jesus call Lazarus out of the tomb.  You might think that that would have created some readiness in Thomas to think that Jesus himself could rise from the dead, but apparently it didn’t.

          Then, at the last supper, when Thomas says that he doesn’t know where Jesus is going, Jesus says, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.  From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  Granted, that’s kind of a mysterious statement, but Thomas is told that seeing Jesus means seeing God.  But still, when the other disciples told Thomas that they had seen Jesus, that wasn’t good enough for him.  So what he had seen in the raising of Lazarus wasn’t enough to convince him; the words that he had heard from Jesus weren’t enough to convince him; and the words he had heard from others about Jesus were not enough to bring him to believe that Jesus really had been raised.

          And therein lies the problem with Thomas.  It’s not that he wanted the same thing that the other disciples got; that’s reasonable and understandable.  The problem with Thomas is his lack of receptiveness to new possibilities concerning Jesus and especially that he rejected the word of the other disciples, those friends with whom he had been through so much.  Throughout John’s gospel, love and trust within the community of the faithful are a significant expression of the work of Christ in their midst.  But for Thomas, their word was not enough; their eyes and their fingers were not enough.  His statement and his skepticism represented a threat to the community that Jesus had tried to build in his time with them.  His skepticism was a threat to sharing the news about Jesus.

          So rather than Doubting Thomas or Faithful Thomas, Skeptical Thomas is probably a more accurate name for him, and that raises the question of what role skepticism plays in faith and in the life of the church.  As Thomas illustrates quite well, on the one hand there is a need for those who are willing to ask questions, but on the other hand there is also a need to trust the witness of the community.  So how much should we just believe it because others have said it’s true; and how much should we raise our questions and doubts?

This kind of tension has played a role in church history from the beginning.  There have always been those who have held fast and unwaveringly to what became official church doctrine, essentially believing the witness of those who have said, “We have seen the Lord,” but there have also always been those who have been less willing to just accept it and have insisted on asking the questions, more like Thomas.  Each of us is probably inclined to lean more one way than the other, Christian church denominations are inclined to lean more one way than the other and it’s quite likely that the pendulum swings back and forth at least to some extent.   The truth of it is, that for the sake of honesty, both approaches are needed for individuals and for churches.

Most years when I have preached on this Sunday I have defended the doubt of Thomas in part because that is the direction the pendulum often swings for me; I think it’s important to ask the questions and I also think it’s important for people to know that doubt is OK as long is it’s doubt that keeps the faith conversation going.  When doubt ends the conversation it’s no longer doubt, it becomes another version of certainty, a version that is just the other side of the coin from fundamentalist certainty that allows no questions and also effectively ends the conversation.  Neither side of that coin is very attractive.

Today though, rather than talk about that, rather than defend Thomas and his doubt I want to talk a little about the witness of the community and highlight the importance of that witness and I found something that I think illustrates it pretty well.  In one of the resources I look at as I try to come up with sermon ideas a book I read about twenty years ago was referenced, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.  One of the threads that runs through this book has to do with what it means to have faith in God and it gets played out through conversations between the main characters as they’re growing up, one being the narrator John, who tends to be somewhat skeptical, the other his friend Owen Meany.

In one scene they are sitting in the schoolyard of the local Catholic school where there is a gray, granite statue of Mary Magdalene.  It was twilight and getting increasingly dark until from where they were sitting the statue was no longer visible.  So Owen asks John if he knows the statue is still there even though they can’t see it.  John says that of course he knows it’s there.

“You have no doubt she’s there?”  Owen nagged me.
“Of course I have no doubt!” I said.
“But you can’t see her—you could be wrong,” he said.
“No, I’m not wrong—she’s there, I know she’s there!” I yelled at him.
“You absolutely know she’s there—even though you can’t see her”? he asked me.
“Yes,” I screamed.
“Well, now you know how I feel about God,” said Owen Meany.  “I can’t see him—but I absolutely know he is there!”

In this book, Owen believes in God and in God’s work in his life, without clear cut evidence or proof.  His friend John doesn’t have the same strength of conviction, but he has confidence in Owen; he draws strength from Owen’s witness of faith and that winds up helping him in his own journey.

The witness of the community, the witness of other believers is important but you know that.  In the times of doubt and questioning that we all can have, God’s presence in the faith of others is a source of strength whether the others are those in the immediate group or the great saints and thinkers of the church or our own personal saints whoever they might be.  As Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 

We give thanks for eyes that have seen and the witness that has been passed down from them starting with those who first experienced the Risen Christ.  We give thanks for the faith of others who have drawn faith from that witness.  We pray that in our own lives that we continue to be those witnesses who have not seen and yet have come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
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welcomes me, and whoever
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