Sunday, April 15, 2012

Are You Sure? -- A Sermon

John 20:19-31

I like Thomas.  He’s my kind of guy.  He asks good questions and pushes the right buttons.  He’s a realist and an empiricist.  So, when he hears that Jesus is risen, he wants to believe, but he also asks: “Are you sure?”  

Thomas has gotten an unfortunate nickname, but is it fair to keep calling him “Doubting Thomas?”  After all, he didn’t ask for anything that the other disciples hadn’t already received.  Besides, the other disciples didn’t accept Mary Magdalene’s testimony, so why should he believe them? 

Back in the 18th century, David Hume suggested that we should be skeptical of claims that don’t fit with normal human experience, and that led Hume to question many religious claims including the resurrection, because there simply isn’t any evidence from normal human experience to support these claims.  And I expect that even if you believe in the resurrection, you’ve embraced at least some of Hume’s principles.   For instance, how many of you believe in UFOs, Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster?  As for me – despite the claims made on TV – until I see better evidence than some blurry photos, I’m going to remain skeptical!  In fact, I’m skeptical of a lot of things I read and hear – especially stuff that gets passed around in e-mails.  I’m a big fan of Snopes!

So why should we blame Thomas for asking for proof?

Perhaps you have come here today with your own questions.  If so, do you feel like you can share them openly, without fear of ridicule?  Do you find this church to be a safe place to explore your questions?   I ask this because polls suggest that many people, especially younger people don’t feel like the church is a safe place to explore  questions that range from the resurrection to the idea that God is loving and just.  They want to know why the wicked prosper and the good suffer?

    We all have our own set of questions.  Yes, even the pastor has questions.

Now, I must admit that I’ve never been faced with the prospect of walking away from my faith.  Maybe that’s because I’ve been in the church all my life or because I’ve had conversation partners who have given me safe-harbor to deal with my questions.  Not everyone has been as fortunate as I.        

I may have never faced the prospect of walking away from my faith, but my faith has evolved, considerably.  The way I understand and practice my faith today is very different from what it was when I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church at age twelve or when I was rebaptized at age seventeen at a Pentecostal camp, or even when I was ordained at age twenty-seven.  The Thomas within me has continually pressed me forward, raising questions that may not always get fully resolved, but I remain comfortable with my faith, even as it changes.   

But not every journey is like mine.  Some of you have had deeper struggles. Maybe it’s because you’ve not had a safe place to explore those questions.  Maybe your life experiences have proven overwhelming?  Perhaps you were hurt or abused by a faith community.  And as a result you felt like you had to walk away.  This is true for many.  On the other hand, maybe you grew up outside a faith community.  This is true for many young adults today.     

Whatever our story might be, I think we can find meaning for our lives in Thomas’ story.   Although Thomas’s story is often read in a way that can lead us to believe that God is uncomfortable with questions, and that Jesus is scolding Thomas for asking for proof, is this the best way to hear this story?  Jesus never called him “Doubting Thomas.”  That’s our nickname for him.   

What if Jesus isn’t scolding or ridiculing Thomas?  What if John tells this story, including Jesus’ response to Thomas’ confession of faith, in order to encourage later Christians, like us, who are called upon to believe without having experienced first hand the presence of the Risen Christ?  Thomas is blessed by his experience with Jesus, but so are we, even if our experience of Jesus is of a very different order?  

Jesus calls us to walk with him even if we still have our questions and doubts.  He invites us to bring them with us, so we can wrestle with them together as a community, and in this journey we find blessing and happiness and joy.   

Diana Butler Bass has written a new book, Christianity After Religion, in which she suggests that we’re in a time of spiritual awakening.  Old patterns of faith, which she calls religion, are giving way to new spiritual patterns.  In the old order, things started with belief and then moved to behavior, and if you believed and you behaved – correctly – then you belonged.  In this new order, people seek a place to belong, and then as they learn patterns of behavior, including spiritual practices like prayer and table fellowship, then they begin to believe.  And the goal here is not affirming a set of doctrines, but rather it involves entrusting one’s life to God’s care.  In this new order belief is not about having the right opinion on certain matters of religion, but instead, it means giving our loyalty, our trust, our heart, to another – namely to God.  It’s less about the mind and more the heart.  Faith is rooted in experiencing the presence of God.  And what is the proof of its truth?  It is the way we live before God.  It is the quality of our life – how we treat our neighbor.  Diana writes that “spiritual experience initiates the well-lived life; the well-lived life confirms the nature of one’s spiritual experience” (p. 126).   This doesn’t mean that our intellectual questions don’t matter.  But the proof is found in how we live out our lives in the presence of God.     

When Thomas sees Jesus, he doesn’t reach out and touch him. Instead he cries out:  “My Lord and my God.”  In making this confession, Thomas recognizes that it is in Jesus that he encounters the presence of God.  This confession reaches back to Jesus’ words to Thomas  in John 14:7 – “If you have really known me, you will also know the Father.  From now on you know him and have seen him” (CEB).  This encounter changes Thomas’s life.  According to Tradition, he takes the gospel to India, where you will find to this day Mar Thoma churches that date back centuries.  Something happened to his life.    

We might not have everything figured out, but even with doubts and questions in tow, we can receive the word Jesus shares with the disciples as they gathered that evening on the first day of week, the day of Resurrection, when he appeared to them, saying:   “Peace be with you.  As the Father sent me, so I am sending you” (vs. 22).   After he said this to them, he then breathed upon them the Holy Spirit and empowered them to forgive sins.   

We live with our questions, but these questions don’t bar us from belonging to the community or loving our neighbor or feeding the hungry.  As we join together as God’s people, sharing in the unity of the Spirit which Jesus breathes upon the disciples, we find strength for the journey.  This sense of unity of the spirit is described in Acts 4, where Luke says that “the community of believers was one in heart and mind” (vs. 32).   He also says that they shared everything in common and no one was in need, as the “Apostles continued to bear witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and an abundance of grace was among them all.”  (Acts 4:34).  In other words, the evidence of their faith was seen in the quality of their lives, lives marked by an abundance of grace.

May we as God’s Resurrection People find in Jesus that abundance of grace, which builds a community that is “one in heart and mind.”  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
April 15, 2012
2nd Sunday of Easter

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