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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter 04/23/2017

During Lent, the title for the gospel lessons and sermons could have been “Encounters with Jesus” as we had those long readings from John involving Jesus’ interactions with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind, and then Lazarus along with his sisters Mary and Martha.  Today that encounter theme continues with the familiar story of Thomas, Doubting Thomas as he will forever be known.

Today’s story though, isn’t the first time Thomas is mentioned in John.  The first time was in the aforementioned Lazarus story.  When Jesus finally says that he is going to back to Judea to awaken Lazarus despite the fact that Jesus’ adversaries were out to kill him, Thomas says, “Come, let us also go that we may die with him.”  It’s hard to know exactly what that statement means as the narrative doesn’t provide any indication of emotion or voice inflection, but at this point I picture Thomas confident, fully loyal to the cause of Jesus, ready to follow him no matter what. 

The next time Thomas is mentioned is at the Last Supper when Jesus told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them so they could be there with him, and then saying that they knew the way to the place where he was going.  This time Thomas comes across as a bit exasperated by Jesus’ vagueness replying, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?”  At this point, his former confidence seems to have vanished and there’s more of a sense of someone who is becoming confused by the direction things are going, someone less sure about Jesus.

Then there’s today’s story, where Thomas, in effect, stands in for each of us.  He wasn’t there with the others to see the risen Jesus when he appeared in the house where they were staying and neither were we.  We can understand and relate to his desire to see for himself. At this point in John’s narrative, Thomas has gone from being an enthusiastic, no questions asked follower of Jesus, to someone who, upon looking at things a little more closely isn’t quite so sure anymore, and then to someone who, despite what others have told him but without first hand proof, finds it all hard to believe and isn’t afraid to say so.

 If we view doubt and questions as the opposite of faith, in today’s story Thomas is at a low point in his faith journey.  If, however, we understand doubt and questions to be a normal part of a journey of faith, Thomas is right where he needs to be.  He’s also right where we need him to be as our representative especially as we remember that he does finally confess that Jesus is Lord and God, showing that doubts and questions can lead to true faith, they can be part of the journey.

But wait, you perhaps say; Thomas really isn’t like us because  he did have that firsthand experience with the risen Christ, it was just a week after the others.  It was only with that encounter that he got to his “My Lord and my God” confession concerning Jesus even if he got to it before placing his fingers in the marks on Jesus hands and side which he said he needed to do in order to believe.

The way John tells it though, even before Thomas encountered the risen Jesus, he already had what he needed in order to make the “My Lord and my God” confession.  He had already received two important pieces of testimony.  At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.  From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  It’s mysterious, but it points to Jesus as equal to God.  Then, following their encounter with the risen Christ, the other disciples told Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!” 

With those two pieces of testimony, Thomas had what he needed.  When Jesus appeared to him it just confirmed what he had already heard.  When he called Jesus “my Lord,” he affirmed what the disciples had said.  When he called him “my God,” he affirmed what Jesus had said at the Last Supper when he said that in seeing Jesus they would see the Father.  With his confession, Thomas then became another voice testifying to the truth of Jesus.

We can be like Thomas insofar as we too are likely to have questions at least sometimes, but we’re also like him in that we too have received testimony about Jesus.  Starting with the first eyewitnesses people have proclaimed that He is risen!  The gospel writers told their stories of Jesus, announcing what they believed about him, Paul and others biblical writers testified concerning Jesus, the early church fathers added to that testimony, Martin Luther and other reformers continued to preach and proclaim Jesus in their time and context and such testimony continues into the present.   Those are the big names, but on top of that are those more personal to each of us, parents perhaps, Sunday School teachers, pastors and others who are part of the faith community who have witnessed to their faith in the risen Christ.

In this encounter with Thomas, Jesus finally says to him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  That’s a reminder that one of the messages of John’s gospel is that seeing signs and wonders does not guarantee faith.  Think of the water into wine story, the first of Jesus’ signs in John.  Despite witnessing firsthand what had happened, the reaction of some was to immediately explain it away, to assume that the bridegroom had just been holding out on the good wine.  It didn’t cause them to come to faith or see Jesus any differently. 

What is more important than signs and wonders are words from and about Jesus.  For Thomas the encounter with the risen Christ made effective the testimony he had heard.  We don’t have the advantage of that kind of first hand encounter, that’s true, but for us the testimony about Jesus is made effective by the work of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate as John calls it, understanding as he does that the risen Christ is present and active in the Spirit.

Today we trust in the presence of that Spirit as we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Baptism with Addison Mae Jarvi and with that she does share something in common with Thomas.  I’m pretty sure she’s not thinking about Doubting Thomas today.  She’s not full of doubts and questions.  Today though, like Thomas, she will be the receiver of an important piece of testimony.  In her case it is sacramental testimony in which the spirit of the risen Christ is truly present. 

Our first thought when we hear the word “testimony” is that it’s words, and it is.  In the church though, in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s word takes on a physical dimension as it is joined to physical elements, water in the case of baptism, bread and wine in the case of communion.  As Martin Luther says in the Small Catechism concerning baptism, “Baptism is not simply plain water.  Instead, it is water used according to God’s command and connected with God’s word.” 

One of the things I always mention to anyone preparing to be baptized or to their parents in the case of infants like Addison, is that when I do the baptism, I don’t say, “Addison Mae, I baptize you,” instead I say, “Addison Mae is baptized, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  I do that because I want the emphasis to be on the work of the Holy Spirit, not on me.

Today, in this sacrament, testimony concerning Jesus as God and Lord will be made by all of us who are gathered here as we say the words of the Apostles’ Creed.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, Addison will receive that testimony and you could say that it represents all the testimony she needs.  But, in the years to come, there will be more testimony from the faithful who surround her as she herself grows in faith and comes to better understand what has been done and said here today. 

It is an interesting day today.  This morning we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Baptism.  This afternoon some of us will be part of or present for the ordination of Vicar Terry, now Pastor Terry down in Gladstone.  In both cases, the same Spirit that Jesus breathed on his disciples, the same Spirit that brought Thomas to faith, will be at work…as it always is.              

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
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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