Sunday, April 03, 2016

Doubt About Belonging

Second Sunday of Easter – Year C
Acts 5.27-32; Psalm 118.14-27; Revelation 1.4-8; John 20.19-31
Sunday, April 3, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

Without a doubt, the Resurrection of Christ is the single most important event in all of history. What happened at Easter, what we heard and celebrated last week at the Great Vigil on Saturday night and at the Easter Day service last Sunday, is way too big to be encompassed in just one day or even one week. It requires more time to fully fathom the breadth and the depth of what has happened event, more time to explore and question, to comprehend the magnitude of this single event. For that reason, the Church has defined Easter as not just one day, but as a “week of weeks” spanning seven Sundays. And with each passing week, we continue to look at Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, to glimpse more and more of this great mystery. And even then, that will not be enough. For in reality, it will take a lifetime, and beyond, to fully grasp.

On Easter Day we heard John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection, how Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty. She went and informed the other disciples of what she had found, and didn’t find – Jesus’ body. Peter and John ran to the tomb to check it out for themselves. Finding things just as Mary had said, they merely went home. (Men!) But Mary, overcome with emotion, stayed at the tomb weeping. She had not had a chance to say her good-byes. And then she had the first encounter with the Risen Christ. We are then told that, “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord” (Jn 20.18).

Today’s gospel picks up where last week’s left off. It is the evening of Christ’s resurrection. The disciples are gathered together, hiding for fear of the temple authorities. Up until now the disciples – the male disciples – have not seen the Risen Lord. Only Mary Magdalene has had that honor, that privilege.

But now, Jesus does appear to the remaining disciples. Minus Thomas, who is inexplicably absent. Jesus appeared in their midst, saying “Peace be with you,” and then showed the disciples the wounds in his hands and side. It is only then that they rejoice. My read is that, despite Mary’s telling them he had indeed risen, they do not recognize Jesus at first. They were still in shock from the day’s events. They were grieving. They were not thinking clearly. And on top of that, this was all unknown territory. After all, no one had ever been resurrected before (except for Lazarus, but that was very different). They didn’t know what that would be like. It is only in seeing the proof of his wounds that they were able to recognize Jesus, and to rejoice.

Then when Thomas does eventually show up, they tell him about seeing Jesus. And you know the rest. That he questioned what they told him. And I say, rightly so. After all, the other disciples seemed initially to have a hard time recognizing Jesus who appeared right in their midst while locked behind closed doors. So why wouldn’t Thomas, who hadn’t been there at all, question what had happened?

To be honest, I think Thomas is the most authentic of the disciples when it comes to the early post-resurrection experiences. At least he is honest about his questioning. He is honest in expressing his doubts. While we are not told as much, I think John implies that the other disciples were a bit doubtful, as well. Until they saw the wounds. So in reality, Thomas is merely asking for what the other disciples have already had. The benefit of seeing the wounds. The proof Thomas seeks for himself.

The story of Thomas is one that many of us can relate to. Who of us have not had doubts at one time or another in our lives? Even doubts, or at the very least, questions, about God. About our relationship with God. It is natural, at times, to question, particularly when dealing with someone as beyond our comprehension as God. When it comes to this aspect of our lives, doubt is not so much an intellectual struggle, but is rather a spiritual reality. What it means to be human and to live with the sacred mystery of who God is and what it means to be in relationship with a God whom we cannot directly see or hear or touch. Even that God would want to be in relationship with us. Let alone the fact that he was willing to become one of us, to die for us.

The willingness to engage these questions and doubts is what makes Thomas the most authentic of the disciples, in my book. Even before news of Jesus’ appearance, Thomas would have had enough questions. Why did Jesus have to die? He is grieving the loss of his teacher, his mentor, his friend. Upon hearing that Jesus has risen, he naturally needs time to process the varied and conflicting thoughts and emotions he is experiencing. You know what that’s like, in the wake of death, in the midst of grief. You just can’t think clearly. Even the simplest things don’t always make sense. (I noticed that in my mother right after my father died. She was in such shock that someone asked her birthdate for a form and she couldn’t even tell them.) And when it comes to resurrection, we are not dealing with the simplest of things. To give Thomas credit, he was honest about his questioning and was willing to struggle with his belief, or momentary lack thereof.

But I want to know why Thomas was not with the other disciples on the evening of Jesus’s resurrection. I think it has something important to tell us. Now, of course we will never know, unless we miraculously find his lost diary. I can’t help but feel there is something more – something besides Thomas’ doubt. Or perhaps, what is evidenced by Thomas’ absence on that evening is indicative of an even greater doubt.

What are the fundamental doubts Thomas struggles with? There are certainly the theological doubts. The veracity of the resurrection itself, which he struggles with upon coming together with the other disciples. And certainly when he finally does encounter the Risen Christ. If Thomas doubts the resurrection, does he also question the truth of what the last three years have been about? And if so, does he question whether he even belongs with this group of people who continue to follow Jesus? Perhaps Thomas’ questioning is also an existential doubt. The question of belonging – Do I belong? Is this my place, my community?

We can relate to this, can’t we? Who of us have not felt like we don’t belong – in a particular place, with a particular group? Sometimes this is the doing of others who do not make us feel welcome. But sometimes it is our own questioning. Maybe even our own uncertainties or insecurities about ourselves. Are we worthy of belonging?

The answer to Thomas’ doubts about his belonging – with the disciples, as a follower of Jesus, maybe even as a child of God – is put to rest when he does finally encounter the Risen Lord one week later. Jesus offers Thomas what he seeks. Physical proof. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side” (Jn 20.27). Jesus literally invites him into his body, to see for himself that this is all true. That this is indeed Jesus who was crucified, as evidenced by the wounds. And who is now standing before him plain as day. But Jesus is also symbolically inviting him into his body – inviting him to be a member of the Body of Christ. This invitation dispels all doubt. For Thomas responds, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20.28) – the first declaration of faith in the Risen Christ. Thomas now knows that Jesus is resurrected. He knows that everything Jesus has been saying for the last three years is true. And most importantly, he knows that he belongs. He belongs to Jesus. And he belongs to the community that is the Body of Christ.

Jesus extends Thomas’ new found understanding to all his followers when he states, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20.29). This is affirmation to all who follow after, who have not had the benefit of physically seeing the Risen Christ, that all that Jesus had told his disciples about his death and resurrection is true. And in this believing, that they, too, belong. That they belong to the Body of Christ. We are those of whom Jesus speaks. We are those “who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” In other words, Jesus is saying we belong.

Our other scripture readings for today point to this sense of belonging – for Thomas and for all of us who follow the Risen One. Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles proclaims the power of Christ’s resurrection – namely that Jesus is the Savior and gives to all the forgiveness of sins. More importantly, Acts paints a picture of the development of the early church as the Body of Christ as the ongoing sign of Christ’s resurrection and all that proceeds from that event.

As the Church developed it repeated, and continues to repeat to this day, the pattern established in our Gospel reading of the faithful gathering on the first day of the week to encounter the Risen Christ, to receive his Spirit, and to share in the peace of Christ. We encounter the Risen Christ in the scriptures, particularly the Gospels. We encounter the Risen Christ in the holy meal in which we take the bread and the wine; when it is blessed, becoming body and blood of Christ; when it is broken and given to us, nourishing us as the Body of Christ. We receive his Spirit at our baptisms and every time we gather together. And we share in the peace of Christ through the Passing of the Peace, when we receive from one another, members of the Body of Christ, the peace that Christ gave to his disciples. Symbolic of the fellowship of the Body of Christ in which we are welcomed and loved, regardless of who we are.

In the book of Revelation, John writes to the persecuted churches in Asia, reinforcing the fundamental truths of the fledgling Church. That Christ is Lord, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of kings. That he loves us. That he showed this by dying for us, thereby freeing us from the bonds of sin and death. That this has always been true, continues to be true, and will always be true. That even though they are in the far-flung reaches (at that time), that they do belong.

The history of the development of the Church in Acts and Revelation demonstrates that Eater continues. All our liturgical actions demonstrate that Easter continues. Every time we gather together as the Body of Christ. In our personal encounters with the Risen Christ through our worship experiences, and in the fellowship of the community of believers, the Body of Christ. But these are not just symbolic liturgical actions. They are tangible proof that all are welcome in God’s house, that all are welcome at God’s table, that all God’s people are beloved and do indeed belong. No matter our questions. No matter our doubts.

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