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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 05/01/2011

Showing up for church the Sunday after Easter seems a little bit like showing up late for a party after most everyone has left and having those who are still there tell you what a good time everyone had.  We do celebrate Easter for seven weeks (actually every Sunday is something of an Easter celebration) but Easter Sunday itself is different, there’s no disputing that; it has such a celebratory feel with the music and flowers and a full church and on top of that this year, after some crummy weather during Holy Week, Easter dawned as a beautiful sunny Spring day.  Easter Sunday does have a different feeling, especially compared to today which is commonly known as low Sunday.  The energy and atmosphere and feeling of celebration are not the same, not even close really. 

Of course most of you were here last week too, or you may have been at another church, but even with that, in a sense you could still say that we are all late for the party.  Even on Easter Sunday, all we can do is listen to the stories of what others experienced; we can’t go back and experience firsthand what the women and the disciples experienced.  The Risen Christ didn’t walk through the door here last Sunday, or through the walls either. 

So we can relate to what Thomas experienced and how he felt.  Like him, our powers of reason and common sense tell us that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t and what Thomas was told did sound too good to be true.  The proof that he then asked for is exactly what we’d all like to have and because of that most of the sermons that get preached on this Sunday include the obligatory defense of Thomas because we can relate. 

Part of that defense includes the fact that while he does become the designated doubter and will forever be known as “Doubting Thomas” he really isn’t all that different than some of the other characters in the Resurrection accounts.  For example, Mary Magdalene saw the empty tomb but she just assumed the body had been stolen; she didn’t believe until the Risen Christ appeared and spoke to her directly.  When she told the others that she had “seen the Lord” they were apparently not impressed as in the next verse they were hiding in fear in a locked room.  They too didn’t believe until Jesus appeared to them and showed them his hands and his side.  The only difference between all of them and Thomas is that he was bold enough to say what he was thinking.

Like us though, Thomas was late for the party.  We can relate and I think a lot of people like this story because they do kind of identify with Thomas.  Those who put the lectionary together must have liked this story too because it is read every year on the Second Sunday of Easter.  But it’s also important to remember that while we find Thomas to be a compelling character, in any story that Jesus appears in it is important to pay attention to him.

What is important for us in this story is that Jesus did not express any irritation or impatience with the skepticism of Thomas.  Jesus’ main concern was that Thomas would come to believe.  So there was no condemnation but instead an invitation to touch his hands and his side, and the statement, “Do not doubt but believe.”  Belief was Jesus’ wish for Thomas and it is his wish for all of us.

I like this story too, but what always worries me about it is that it can create the perception that doubt is the enemy or that doubt is the opposite of faith.  It’s a logical conclusion especially with Jesus’ words “Do not doubt but believe.”  The problem is that “Do not doubt but believe” really isn’t a very good translation of the Greek.  A more accurate reading is “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”  Now perhaps you say, it pretty much amounts to the same thing doesn’t it, and that may be true, but “Do not be unbelieving but believing” gets the word doubt out of there along with the negative baggage that comes with it. 

I think that’s important.  I think it’s important because it gets rid of the notion that the goal for each of is blind, unquestioning belief.  If you’ve got that kind of faith and belief, that’s fine, but for many that’s not the case.  For many, questions or doubts are part of the journey as I’m fond of saying, and that puts them in the good company of Thomas. 

Another thing that is often mentioned in the defense of Thomas is that the story ends with one of the most profound confessions of faith found anywhere in the gospels; “My Lord and my God!” Thomas says.  He did go from unbelieving to believing and in the gospel of John itself he takes us full circle back to chapter 1, verse 1, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  What was announced at the beginning of the gospel is now confirmed in Thomas’ confession of belief. 

With Thomas, he went from unbelieving to believing in just a few verses, and he did have the direct experience of Jesus to help him along.  For most of us, working through our questions takes longer than that but there we can again learn from Thomas.  Despite his skepticism he apparently hadn’t given up.  A week later he was still with those who told them they had seen the Lord; so despite his questioning he was still part of the believing community. 

Too often people with questions give up on the community, give up on the church perhaps assuming that everyone who is there has that blind, unquestioning belief.  I tend to think that if the only people in church were those with that kind of faith the numbers would be far more depressing than they are, not to mention the fact that there might not be very many pastors either.  Continuing to be part of the community makes a difference because as Thomas found out, the Risen Christ does show up.  It might not be as dramatic as what he experienced but we believe that in the mystery of word and sacrament, the Risen Christ does show up and is present in our gathered community.  How that presence is experienced isn’t exactly the same for everyone, but the experience is real.

That’s another thing to take from the Thomas story.  Because Jesus’ wish for us is that we be believing rather than unbelieving he meets us where we are and not everyone is in the same place.  Sometimes you might be made to feel that if you haven’t had the right kind of religious experience you’re not a “real” Christian or a real believer and most often the experience thought to be required is some moment when you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior and all of a sudden your life is different.  Some people do have that kind of experience, that’s how the Risen Christ meets them; it’s very emotional and it’s real. But for others it may be a slower, more subtle process that doesn’t include that dramatic moment but instead requires patience and persistence in pursuing the journey, a more gradual revelation.  That kind of experience is different, less emotional, but it’s no less real.  The Risen Christ can follow that path too.

Christian faith isn’t one size fits all.  The Risen Christ approaches in different ways because our experiences and personalities and our approaches to life are different.  But Jesus meets us…and finds a way to bless us.    

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says and that seems to be an appropriate statement for us as we show up late for the celebration.  Faith in Jesus did start with what was seen and experienced first hand by a small group of followers including Thomas.  But Jesus’ words at the end of this story are addressed to those who would never have that kind of firsthand experience.  With that statement Jesus invites and blesses all who engage the journey, because again, as was the case with Thomas, his desire is that we believe.  He wants us to believe not because he’s involved in some cosmic popularity contest but because belief in him brings with it hope, the same hope that Jesus himself talked about and embodied, hope that goes beyond the limits of this world, beyond the limits of what the world tells us is possible.

Belief in Jesus as the living, Risen Christ changes our reality, ushering us into a new existence where hope and possibility always prevail.  That’s what Thomas learned and that’s what’s open to us; we’re not late for the party after all.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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