Note: This sermon was preached on April 8, at Epiphany Church (www.epiphanypeoria.org)
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Today is the second Sunday of the Easter season, or Eastertide as it’s called that culminates in the day of Pentecost, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Church. For those of you who have been with Epiphany for some time, or who have been part of a liturgical church before you’ll see that we’ve cycled back around to what is known as the “Doubting Thomas” story. Once again we’re confronted with Thomas’ frustrating, even troubling, and yet relatively normal response to the second hand information that Christ had risen from the dead. I am going to talk about Thomas today, but only in relation to a number of other things I see going on in this passage from the Gospel of John as well the passage from the book of Acts. I see a lot happening in these passages and I want to attempt to make some connections between them. Perhaps I have too many points I want to make, so if you’re taking notes—even if you just like to make mental notes—here are the main ideas I want to go over:
1.) I want to briefly mention church unity, and just how painful it is that true unity is so difficult to obtain and maintain, on both a local level and a global level.
2.) As a way of helping us face the struggle of church unity, I want us to allow Jesus’ words to be forever spoken over us: “Peace be with you.”
3.) I want to deconstruct and then rebuild a phrase I have come to hate but am now learning to look at with fresh eyes. That phrase is: “It’s not about a religion, it’s about a relationship.”
4.) More than anything I want to discuss what it means to come in contact with the risen Christ
5.) Finally, I want to discuss how Jesus, the Sent One, has now become the Sending One
But before I get in to those points I want to leave you with a few images that will hopefully stick in your mind.
1.) The Magician’s Nephew—this is an excellent parable for learning how to let go of our fears. C.S. Lewis embeds numerous phrases about not being afraid, even having its character bluntly exclaim "No fear!" a few times
So The Magician’s Nephew was my image for letting go of our fear.
2.) Next, I want you to imagine something with me. I want you to do a little thought experiment with me:
How would you respond and how would it effect our community as Epiphany if one Sunday I entered our time of worship, perhaps as the music leader, as the preacher, as a server at the Table, or perhaps as a fellow worshipper, and I very boldly brandished a very large and very sharp sword in front of everyone. What if I very quickly pulled it out of it’s sheath and it made that stinging pinging sound that fine steel makes, the kind of sound that makes us think a battle or a fight is about to start? What if I stared around and waited until I had everyone’s attention and then declared aloud “I just wanted everyone to know I have my sword on me, that it is newly sharpened, and I’m ready to use it if necessary. Oh, and I should mention I plan on bringing it every Sunday and there’s nothing any of you can do about it.”
Think of the consequences, the turn of events I would bring about in our little community. Think of the immediate emotions that would rise up in every single one of you, ranging from fear, to anger, to moral judgement, to significant disappointment, to massive confusion. Think of all the numerous discussions that would ensue in the following days and weeks, all about little old me and my sword. Everyone would be figuring out what to do with me, and what had happened to me to make such a radical change take place.
This was my image relating to church unity and what happens when it is disrupted. Everything is thrown off and and any kind of unity is very difficult to regain.
3.) My third image comes from the Scriptures themselves in what is one of the most striking images in all of history: that of Thomas being confronted with the risen Christ and being compelled to put his own hands in the wounds that remain.
This is my image to help us look at the phrase “It’s not about a religion, it’s about a relationship,” and this is where I really want to begin today, at the end of my sermon. Encountering the risen Christ is the beginning and ending of our faith. It is truly all there is, and thus it is where this sermon begins.
In the last decade I have come to hate the phrase “It’s not about a religion, it’s about a relationship,” because I see the proclamation as such a lazy way to approach the Christian faith, a proclamation that misses so much. It’s a statement that is trying to point out that “religion” as a practice or an institution is a dead and lifeless thing. That to be bound up in rules and structures and traditions and rituals and hierarchies kills the very thing we are after. That “knowing God isn’t about following the rules MAN! No one wants to follow your dead religion! It’s about a relationship MAN!” To me, the problem with this sentiment is it fails to acknowledge how complex the Christian life it. I hear it’s critique that we get caught up in rule following and tradition following and stop seeking actual relationship with God. But it also assumes that the traditions of our faith are inherently empty or based in legalism.
To me, the two must always go together, and you only have to look at a few practical examples to understand why. For my first let me ask you: am I teaching my children blind legalism by having them do their chores everyday and having them keep the same bedtime routine everyday? Should my family only be about “relationship” and not have to get caught up in all those rules MAN? Am I completely missing the point of family? Next, should there be any rules about who is allowed to play in the World Series every year. Or are all those rules just unfair constrictions that are just totally ruining baseball MAN?
Or perhaps is it the case that people actually kind of enjoy the rules and appreciate the structure the rules create, even if it means their team doesn’t win all the time? I would argue the rules each team keeps within individual baseball games all the way up to the rules that determine who makes it into the playoffs are what keep baseball (or any sport) continually intriguing. As might already be evident, I very adamantly think the traditions and built-in structures of our faith need to continually live in relationship with the relational side of our faith, just like it does in basically every other area of our lives. And yet recently I’ve been struck with the truth of the "relationship" side of the cliche about religion vs. relationship and it is rooted to what happens to Thomas in our passage, where he was faced with an astounding absurdity invading his reality: that of the risen Christ standing before us.
My call today is that we become Thomas. May we be the doubting, stubborn fool. May we be willing to face scorn, and to be utterly wrong, if only so that we may come face to face with Christ himself. Christ whom we KNEW to be dead only days before and is now alive. Or to take another example, may we be willing to be Paul, shamefully knocked off our horse, lying there on our backs blinded by the light of Christ, devastated and enveloped by the love of the one we had hoped to eradicate. Think of how wrong and foolish Thomas and Paul were, and then think of how powerfully they were embraced.
And thus, more and more I am convinced the Christian life is about nothing more than knowing and encountering the risen Christ. So yes, I think the statement about religion versus relationship is rather ill-thought out, and yet there is something powerfully true about it. Here’s how I would put it: the very reason we gather together, the reason we go through this complex and ancient ritual we call “liturgy,” the reason some of us endure years of training and testing in order to be ordained as a minister, the reason we enact rules and safeguards in the church is because it’s ALL about knowing the Lord God who made heaven and earth, knowing his Son who was sent to earth for us, and knowing his Spirit sent to be our helper. They HAVE to go together, to be held in tension always. Yet today, this second Sunday of Easter, it is about the relationship. It is about the encounter with Jesus.
In many ways this argument of religion versus relationship is concerned with figuring out a very real problem with our faith: is my relationship with God rooted in me being part of the larger community of believers, or is it about my personal relationship with God? Ultimately, I am going to say it is about holding both of those concerns together, that the truth is in the tension. But sometimes we need to hear the call to take hold of our own lives with a kind of desperate passion: Do you know God? Is your relationship with him your own? Have you drawn close to God? As I’ve put it a few times already, have you encountered the risen Christ?
The beauty of gathering around the Lord’s Table and celebrating Communion is that we always do so as a community and as individuals, and that we should never get too caught up in any one side of that equation. There should always be a bit of a dance going on within us where we take joy in how our faith is a shared faith and yet it is fully our own. We know Christ BOTH as part of a united body and as an individual. Never let that tension evaporate. Acknowledge it and relish it.
But today, today in particular, I am hearing a specific call to us from out of John’s Gospel: YOU are to come to Christ. Look up and see him. Put your hands in his wounds and know that it is he. Be willing to cry out “My Lord and my God!” And believe in him…
The call today is imperatively personal. Will YOU come and will YOU believe?
And yet this story portrays a disunity among the disciples. You can see in it Thomas bringing a verbal and emotional sword right into the room with him. He will not believe unless he sees it for himself. It says 8 days passed by before they saw Jesus again. Imagine the tension between Thomas and the other disciples in the days that ensued. Did they yell? Did Thomas storm off? Did he sulk? Did they shun him?
Our passage today from Acts 4 stands in sharp contrast to this scene of disunity and tension amongst the disciples. Taking place in the months after Christ’s ascension, Luke records the post-Pentecost church as follows:
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Here they were completely united in their shared experience of knowing the resurrected Christ. It changed how they lived in community together and how they treated everyone outside of their community. Their unification in Christ’s resurrection and encountering the risen Christ changed everything for them. However, if you read much further in the book of Acts you know that unity was not to last long. There were numerous crises and arguments and divisions that occurred throughout the book and continued on into the early church. Well, they even continue into today…
I have to say, one thing that truly pains me is the lack of unity in the Church across the whole world. The different divisions and disagreements create such a conflict in me. They hurt and I really don’t know what to do with all the difference, all the walking away from each other, all the denying of each other. Also, there is currently a tremendous amount of political strife in division amongst American Christians. There are numerous people in my own life that I have known for years, that I now struggle to understand how THEIR faith could even possibly be the same as MY faith. It’s all very disorienting and wearying. I could go on at length about what I would want to see take place in order for the Church to unite and what I think American Christians should be doing. I could lay down my ideas and dream for you. The task takes quite an imagination because the problems are so large. I would love for all the churches to be like that little group in Acts chapter 4. Everything was so perfect back then…but I know now things will never again be that simple.
Amidst all the problems Christ calls out to me. To ME: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”
Therefore, right now I am asking for three things in my life:
1.) To know the risen Christ.
2.) To dwell in his peace.
3.) To know how to live after having encountered him.
I have a lot of personal problems right now that are weighing on me. My wife has health issues, our daughter who will be born soon has health issues, and so much of life seems such a struggle. But is my family really all that unique? Perhaps your life is smooth sailing at the moment, but has it always been? Will it ALWAYS be? Ah, do you see how we are communally united through our personal sufferings?
Our New Testament reading was from First John and later in that letter we get an iconic passage: 1 John 4:18–19
 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.  We love because he first loved us. (ESV)
So many of our actions are motivated by fear. People bring out their literal and metaphorical swords because of fear. Thomas was afraid and acted accordingly. Diggory, the boy in The Magician’s Nephew was afraid of losing him mother and the book is about him overcoming that fear and learning to trust in and allow himself to be covered in the love of Aslan, the love of God. Diggory is afraid of losing his mother’s love because she is dying from a terminal illness. In his mind his whole world will come crashing down if he loses that. But what he comes to realize is he will NEVER lose his mother’s love even if she dies, because his mother’s love first came from God and God’s love endures forever. And you cannot fear the loss of something that cannot be taken away. Perfect love casts out all fear.
The risen Lord standing before us asking us to believe is the ultimate act of love. It is the act of one who first came for us, who laid down his life for us, and who overcame death for us. It is ultimate sacrifice, ultimate victory, and ultimate love. Today I hear God calling to us that we would know the greatness of his love and to know the power of his resurrection, as a people united and as individuals.
Today’s message doesn’t have a proper ending, because the ending lies with us. A very simple question arises from this post-resurrection account of John: “now that you’ve met the risen Christ, what will you do?” How will you live after this encounter? Many people call this the Gospel of John’s Great Commission passage, as it has Jesus saying: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you,” and then he breathes on them, telling them to receive the Holy Spirit. Later, as the passage ends, the author gives, if it weren’t abundantly clear already, the reason his book has been written: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” In the more well known “Great Commission” from Matthew, Jesus commissions his followers to go and make disciples to the ends of the earth, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Those who encounter the risen Christ and come to believe in him, go tell others about him.
I am very much attempting to figure out how to do that with my life. How do I let the power and love and truth of God live through me so that through my life others would come to know him and know his love? That’s a lot of burden to bear for a single individual. Thankfully, he has given us the task as a community living and working together and he empowers us with his Spirit. So the end of the sermon remains to be seen…We are the end, acting out Jesus’ commission to us—to believe and to tell others that he is the risen one.
As we confess our Creed together and enter into a time of prayer for the Church and the world, let our prayers focus on this: that the risen Christ and the power of his resurrection would be know in our community, in our diocese, in our city, nation, and world, and in the lives of all those hurting, suffering, or in need.