-today is also the national day of prayer. i'll be joining with local clergy in the sunbury area as we pray for our country and our town adn our churches and our government and more during a service in our downtown park this afternoon. if you're in the sunbury area, come and join us in cameron park at noon.
-as i shared yesterday, i'm dealing with some significant back pain. after some research, i'm self diagnosing it as a bulging disc in the lumbar. i could be wrong, but it seems to have all the associated symptoms, and i've had this pain in this exact spot several times before. this is one of the most severe episodes. you don't realize how much you use your lower back until it hurts. everything, from lying on the couch, to sneezing, to walking down the stairs, to getting dressed, to going to the bathroom requires the use of your lower back. and so doing any of these things is very painful right now.
-i appreciate everyone's thoughtful comments on my osama bin laden post the other day. i knew it wouldn't be popular with everyone, but i appreciate the tenor of the conversation both here and on facebook. i felt compelled to speak what was on my mind about it. interestingly, steelers running back rashard mendenhall expressed some of the same thoughts on his twitter account and has received some major flack for it, so much so that many in steeler nation are calling for him to be cut or traded, or that they will no longer support him. really? because he asked some legitimate questions about the morality of celebrating death? this makes him anti-american? i guess all i can say is that i'm glad i'm not famous. i'd get myself into too much trouble.
-we started a sermon series this last sunday called "now what?" in which we are talking about how we can continue to live in the joy and hope of easter resurrection, without letting fade it away as the calendar turns from april to may. we are looking at four practical ways to keep the Spirit of easter alive in us. this first week was called "stay connected," and focused on the story of thomas. while we mostly remember thomas because of his supposed doubt, this sermon proposes that thomas is more of a pouter than a doubter, and that the lesson he teaches us is to stay connected with our faith community. many people have asked me for a copy of the sermon, so if you would like to read it, you can click the "keep reading" link below. i just copied and pasted it out of word, so you will have to forgive all the capital letters. i wanted to go through and change them all to lower case letters, but it hurts my back too much.
Just for kicks and grins, I typed in the words “doubting Thomas” into Google, and in less than a second I had over 500,000 results. That is an impressive number for a disciple who gets very little mention in the Bible. And yet, despite his pretty much behind-the-scenes Biblical role, Thomas has certainly earned quite a reputation for himself over the ages. Whether he wanted it or not, Thomas has become stunningly famous for doubting. But here’s what I want to do this morning: I want to contend that he is no doubter at all, and that we would do better to remember Thomas for something else completely.
Let’s go back for a second. One of the few times we get to hear the words of Thomas outside of the story we heard this morning is in John 11, when Jesus was thinking of going to Judea, to the village of Bethany, to visit his grieving friends and raise Lazarus from the dead. The disciples were strongly urging Jesus not to do this, for fear that he would be stoned to death by the religious leaders. But when Jesus was insistent, it was Thomas who spoke up and said, “Let us go with him, that we may die with him if we have to.” Interesting, right? That doesn’t sound like a doubter or a cynic, but more like one full of courage and heart and devotion to Jesus. And yet, as we look back on the character of Thomas through our modern lenses, it is his cynicism that we most identify with. Because, let’s face it, cynicism today is as common as cell phones. Here’s an example, if you get a phone call this afternoon that says you’ve won a trip to the Bahamas, what would you do? You’d hang up the phone. Because you wouldn’t believe it. Our cynicism helps us survive in a land of fine print, and in the age of finding things out for ourselves. We have been tricked and conned, misled and misinformed, and hoodwinked and bamboozled enough to want to need some proof. We can find out everything for ourselves by turning on the news, reading the paper, or finding it online. The information age has put the whole world at our fingertips, all available to us in an instant. If only Thomas had had these resources! When the disciples excitedly told him that Jesus had risen, he could have simply gone onto CNN.com for 24 hour, up-to-the-minute news. “JESUS IS RISEN,” the headlines would have screamed. And Thomas would have believed, and would have avoided his enduring nickname. Or would he? I mean, for all the data we have, all the information at our fingertips, would we still, DO we still need to take our fingers off the remote or the keyboard and place them into the wounds of Jesus before we are willing to cry out, “My Lord and my God,” like Thomas? It seems the information highway hasn’t taken us to a place of belief, but instead to cynicism and doubt. We can’t even believe the news anymore, because so much of it is biased with one opinion or another. We may be quick to believe the headlines when it tells us how deep the debt is, or how many were killed in the latest shooting, but we are very slow to trust that anything good can come for free, or that a leader might just have some integrity. Perhaps we have grown even more full of doubt than Thomas himself, the poster child for cynics everywhere.
Can you imagine, for a moment, the heart of Thomas in the hours of the crucifixion of Christ? Thomas has given up everything – career, family, and reputation – just to follow this self-proclaimed Messiah. And sometime during those 3 bumbling years the disciples spent with Jesus, Thomas – doubting Thomas – had become convinced that Jesus was indeed the Song of God!. Despite his reservations, despite his ageless reputation of restraint, Thomas was full of faith to the point of being willing to die with him. This is hardly the heart of a cynic. Still, picture him now, everything he had embraced as true for the last 3 years has gone up in smoke. His Messiah is dead on a cross, crucified by the religious and the Romans. Now what does he have to believe in? Maybe he felt betrayed. Or lost. Or depressed. And I want you to take note of what John tells us here, that all the disciples were gathered together, no doubt terribly disappointed themselves and tending to their own emotional wounds. There they all were on Sunday night, with the door locked because they were afraid for their lives. All of them, still sad, but curious and perhaps confused about this business of the tomb being empty. All of them, that is, except Thomas. Where is Thomas? Is he attending the Jerusalem chapter meeting of Cynics and Doubters Anonymous? No, he is alone. When faced with tragedy, when at wits’ end, when feeling betrayed and hurt and scared, Thomas, like many of us, preferred to keep it locked up inside himself rather than share it with others. I relate well with Thomas at this point. I, too, internalize. I like to hash through things on my own. I find that I am more prone to struggle within myself than to share with someone who can help. Simply put, I am prone to pout. And I believe Thomas was pouting. Instead of commiserating with the other disciples, Thomas was off by himself. Internalizing. Struggling. Pouting.
Meanwhile, back at disciple headquarters, Jesus passes through the locked door, enters the room, and makes his appearance to the disciples. They were elated, of course, and I can picture them as giddy as little boys, full of joy and excitement. They had been hoping, holding on, that maybe Jesus was alive after all, and now here he was to prove it. And friends, I want you to realize that this is what Thomas’ independence cost him: he missed seeing Jesus. And this is true for us, as well. We’ve just been through Easter, experienced the great joy of the victory of life over death, and yet as the days go by, we quickly find that joy fading. How soon our faith moves from blessed assurance to broken and apathetic. We lose our joy, we lose our passion, and we love our energy for following Jesus. And you know why? Because we aren’t meeting him. We aren’t seeing him. We aren’t witnessing his power in our community and in our lives. Because we’re not connected. Partly, this means that we need to be in church, not just when it’s convenient, but as often as we can, not because it earns us anything, but because if we don’t we are missing out on seeing our Lord, like Thomas did. But just being there isn’t the only thing. We all know that many can be in church but still not be really present. I’m talking about staying connected, making sure that we are plugged into the lifeblood of the body, having honest conversations with friends about our victories and our defeats. I’m talking about having a certain accountability and vulnerability with one another, because when we do that, then we are really connected to one another; then we can discover the way Jesus often shows up in the words or actions of another when 2 or 3 are gathered together.
Now the disciples, after they had this incredible experience of seeing Jesus, and when they had finally seen Thomas, told him the good news. They must have seemed a bit off their rockers to him, and this of course is where he earns his nickname of doubting Thomas, since he won’t believe Jesus is risen until he sees him for himself. Of course, we don’t know how much the others doubted, too, until they saw jesus for themselves, but they had the advantage of sharing in the experience of doubt vs. belief together. Now here comes some great redemption in this little story. The next sentence in John’s Gospel tells us that it was one week later, and the disciples are again in this house and Thomas is with them. Do you see what happened here? History’s greatest doubter hasn’t abandoned hope at all, but is wanting to believe what his friends say is true, so much so that he is waiting with them for day after day for Jesus to reappear. And Jesus does show up, and before Thomas even has a chance to touch the wounds, he proclaims loudly, “My Lord and My God.”
And so I submit to you today that maybe we shouldn’t be quite so quick to paint Thomas with the broad strokes of doubt. I think we would do well to seek truth as hopefully and honestly as Thomas. But how? What can we learn from this story? I believe it is this, friends: we cannot do it alone. When we face rejection, hurt, difficulty, depression, and despair, we must not, cannot, try to face it on our own. We are made for communion, for fellowship with one another. When we face the world alone, when we treat life like a game of solitaire, we are overcome by loneliness and overwhelmed by inadequacy, not to mention that we so often miss out on seeing Jesus. When we treat our faith like something so private and personal that no one else even knows it’s there, we miss out on real experiences of faith. Thomas missed seeing Jesus. So do we. I’m sure by now you’ve noticed that the Easter cross is still here in the sanctuary and maybe you’ve wondered about that or just figured we didn’t have enough time to take it down, but I want you to know that I’ve chosen to leave it in the sanctuary on purpose. Liturgically, this part of the Christian year is called the season of Easter, and that will continue until ascension Sunday. But more than that, I didn’t want us to be guilty of singing “Christ the Lord has Risen Today” one week, and then forget it all by the next week. Easter lives on in us, all year long. At least it should. We are easter people. But we often don’t look like it. Our faith often lacks the joy of resurrection, or the assurance that love wins and Christ is the victor. And so my challenge to you during this sermon series is to find some concrete ways to keep Easter alive in your hearts and in your faith and in your actions. And the first way I think we can do that is to stay connected. We would do well to be more like old doubting Thomas, who wanted so badly to believe that he would risk his life for it; and less like the pouting Thomas, who left the group to suffer through his pain alone. May we learn from his example and stay connected, not just in body, but also in spirit, that we might also experience the joy of the risen Christ. Amen.