The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
Sermon for April 28, 2019
For the past several years, Mother Storm has asked me to give the sermon on theSunday after Easter. It is a little bit of a joke between us, because after the multiple services in Holy Week and Easter, deacons, deacons to be, or curates are often asked to preach on this Sunday, This Sunday is the day that we hear about DoubtingThomas. I have grown attached to Thomas the apostle. Maybe it is because I like him, having been filled with doubt during times in my life. Maybe it is because I am fascinated by the possibility that he spent time in India converting early Christians. But it is also because I have simply gotten to know him as a courageous, devoted, human and a follower of Christ.
Who is Thomas and what do we know about him? His full name is thought to be JudasThomas or Didymus which means “The Twin”. He was one of the 12 apostles. We first meet him in the gospel of John. In this passage, Jesus is going to Bethany to see his friendLazarus, who has just died.. The disciples are worried because they know that Jesus will risk his life traveling so close to Jerusalem. There have been death threats made. Undeterred, Thomas says:"Let us also go, that we may die with him. He is prepared to die with his friend. So we know that he is a deeply loyal and committed disciple.
Later, at the Last Supper, Jesus is telling his disciples that he is going away to prepare a heavenly home for his followers, and that one day they will join him there. Thomas reacts by saying, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. how can we know the way? Thomas seems willing to go but full of literal questions :Where is this place? How are we going to get there?
And of course we know him from today’s gospel reading. His disciples see the resurrected Christ but Thomas is missing. Where was Thomas? Was he exhausted from the week before or perhaps even traumatized by the events that had unfolded ?No one knows. It remains a mystery. What we do know, is that his friends quickly told him about the appearance of Jesus. And here is where the famous doubting part comes in. Thomas skeptically tells them, “Unless I see the mark of the nail in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later, Thomas is with his friends in the room, and this time Jesus appears once more. Jesus asks him to put his finger in his hands and side. “Do not doubt but believe,” Jesus says. Thomas responds with the exclamation. “My Lord and My God!”My Lord and My God. These words have been called the most important statement of faith in the New Testament. They are the only time, in the New Testament , that Jesus is called God. And they are said by Thomas.
More is known about Thomas from the amazing discovery in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Ancient manuscripts, were found in a clay jar hidden in a cave, by a local farmer. In that important discovery, The Gospel of Thomas was found. This Gospel isa non-canonical text ( meaning not sanctioned and not included in ourNew Testament.) But scholars think that text may have been written as early as the first century. It differs from the Gospels we know in that it is a series of sayings. Here are two of them: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. “ and “ Blessed is the person who struggled, he has found life.”
In the Acts of Thomas, another text from the fourth century, we are told about his early ministry. It is a combination of tradition, history and legends. We are told that Thomas first arrived on the shores of Kerala, India. Indian people in Kerala trace their faith directly to Thomas and call themselves St. Thomas Christians. They are a multi Ethnic group comprised of Jewish, Syrian and Hindu origins. Many of the prayers and hymns that are sung in their liturgy, are spoken in Syriac, which is the language closest toAramaic, the ancient Language that Jesus spoke. Thomas baptized and built churches including the world’s oldest church structure which was built in 57 a.d. There are 27million Christians in India. Modern day pilgrims delight in crosses with elephants on them and colorful celebrations and dances. Thomas was killed in 72 ad. He is said to have exclaimed these words “My Lord and My God.” at the hour of his death.
Now that we have a little context for Thomas, let’s go back to that time so long ago when Thomas shared his doubts with this friends. That day, he basically said, I’m not believing you unless I see if for myself. No way. Show me the proof. We don’t know what the disciples said to him afterwards. Perhaps they were irritated or angry. The way you feel when someone doesn’t believe you. But they must have stood by him, because there he was, the very next week with his friends, in that same room. They didn’t abandon him in his time of doubt. Thomas asks to be present, mindful and observant - to touch and feel Christ. And Jesus is accepting of that.
As humans, we know deeply what it is like to doubt. Life is full of times of doubt. We doubt whether we can repair a relationship or whether a parent or friend will regain their health. We have doubts about our jobs, marriages, children. Sometimes we have doubts about the very meaning of our life. The important thing that we can learn fromThomas, is that doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is a pathway to faith. Brother MarkBrown is an Episcopal monk from the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Boston. He believes that doubt is a gift. “We should have Just enough doubt to take this world seriously,” he tell us. We are to fully embrace this world, in all its joy and sorrows.”
In his book, Systematic Theology, Paul Tillich, the great Christian philosopher and theologian, tells us that “The affirmation that Jesus is the Christ is an act of faith and consequently of daring courage. Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”
As we come to church on Sunday mornings, each one of us, brings with us a wide range of personal beliefs and views, imbedded in the context of our faith. Some of us have a deep, structured set of beliefs, born of tradition and a formal religious upbringing. Others have a mixture of personal interpretations and religious formation that has created a unique theology -that fits into the world as they see it. If you have attended the Conversations that Matter forums, you know this to be true. Take for example the last forum called “Holy Living, Holy Dying”, folks had all kinds of stories and ways of understanding death, life after death and resurrection. This is the beauty of the Episcopal Church. There is room for everyone in this faith community. Each walk of faith is different. You will go through periods of doubt and if you hang in there, periods of renewed faith and joy.
Jesus has time for you and me. Just like he did when he stood before Thomas and said “Put your finger here and see my hands”. He has time to stand there patiently, while we figure it out and make sense of our faith. In the seasons of our life, as we move closer and then back away, stop and then move closer to him again and again, he has time for each one of us. There is no rush and no right path. For faith is as individual as the soul it resides in. In this Easter season, let us rejoice in our own special journey and the acceptance of a Christ who loves us even when we are filled with doubt. Who stands there in our life, unwavering and strong enough to handle any of our human fears with his love, acceptance and an open heart.