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Sermon for Sunday 28 April 2019

First Reading                                          Acts 5:12-32

12Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, 15so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. 16The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed. 17But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy 18they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. 19But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, 20“Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” 21And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach. Now when the high priest came, and those who were with him, they called together the council, all the senate of the people of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22But when the officers came, they did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, 23“We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.” 24Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to. 25And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” 26Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people. 27And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

Psalm                                                            Psalm 148

1Hallelujah! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights. 2Praise him, all you angels of his; praise him, all his host. 3Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars. 4Praise him, heaven of heavens, and you waters above the heavens. 5Let them praise the name of the Lord; for he commanded, and they were created. 6He made them stand fast forever and ever; he gave them a law which shall not pass away. 7Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps; 8Fire and hail, snow and fog, tempestuous wind, doing his will; 9Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars; 10Wild beasts and all cattle, creeping things and winged birds; 11Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the world; 12Young men and maidens, old and young together. 13Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name only is exalted, his splendor is over earth and heaven. 14He has raised up strength for his people and praise for all his loyal servants, the children of Israel, a people who are near him.  Hallelujah!

Second Reading                          Revelation 1:4-18

4John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. 8“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” 9I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” 12Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. 17When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”

Gospel                                                   John 20:19-31

19On 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.” 20When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” 24Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.” 26Eight 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31but 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 Luther’s explanation of the 8th commandment, “You shall not bear false witness”, Luther said, “We are to fear and love God so that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, (and this is the part I want to focus on), but defend him, think and speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”  I bring this up, because I want to take a look at our gospel lesson from this perspective; defending, speaking and thinking well of our neighbors and putting the best construction on everything.  For as long as I can remember, the apostle Thomas has been held up as a model of something we should stay away from, even to the point of tagging him with a less than respectable nickname.

One of the things I find interesting is the way a nickname can stick with a person.  Several years ago, I met a person who’d been given the nickname “Fat.”  As the story goes, as a small boy he was grossly overweight and cruel neighborhood children hung that moniker on him.  “Hey, who’s the big kid out on the playground?” “Oh, that’s Fat Eddie.”

The puzzling part of the story is, that as an adult, Eddie wasn’t particularly overweight, yet he somehow always retained the nickname fat.  Friends and family always called him Fat, or Fat Eddie.  It’s interesting how something like a nickname can become a permanent part of a person’s identity.  And something similar happened to the apostle Thomas.  

Now I can’t say for sure when exactly it started, but from as long I could research, this close follower of our Lord has been known as Doubting Thomas.  Just as there were reasons for Eddie to be called Fat, in much the same way, there was a reason Thomas has been called Doubting.  I’m certain, part of this has to do with the way that Thomas thought and interacted with others.

Now for those who watch the Sitcom The Big Bang Theory, I’m sure you can see some of the same personality traits in Jim Parson’s character, Dr. Sheldon Cooper as those of the apostle Thomas.  Sheldon Cooper is a thirty-something theoretical physicist with two Ph.D.s.  Critics describe this television character as socially awkward, because he has almost no interpersonal awareness or skill.  Consequently, he’s given to saying insensitive things at inappropriate times.  However, if you’ve followed the show through the years, you recognize that there’s more to it than social awkwardness.  Sheldon is a hardcore realist who utters whatever thoughts flit through his mind.

When Sheldon has a question, he’s generally very direct.  As a scientist, he possesses enormous intellectual curiosity and accepts as truth, only that which can be verified through the human senses.  If Sheldon cannot explain it using math, touch it, smell it, taste it, see it, test it or hear it, he doesn’t believe it.  That results in Sheldon having a limited understanding of what’s true.  It doesn’t matter if there are witnesses, if Sheldon hasn’t personally experienced it, then it cannot be factual.  To say the least, the Sheldon Cooper character is not given to poetic imagination.  The irony is he’s a theoretical physicist.

Yet as a person who envisions the activity of subatomic particles and multiple dimensions beyond three, he seems incapable of standing in awe of the evening sunset, to thrill at the sound of a Bach chorale, or to rejoice at the sound of children laughing.  Because of this particular characteristic, issues of faith don’t come easily to Dr. Sheldon Cooper.  One could say that some of these same things could be said of the apostle Thomas, nicknamed the Doubter.

Thomas is mentioned in all four of the gospels.  In the first three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all we get is his name listed among the other apostles and a curious comment about how his name means “twin.”  The fourth gospel provides more details.  These offer flashes of insight into the apostle’s ways of thinking and doing.

In St. John’s gospel, Jesus got word from Mary and Martha that Lazarus, their brother and Jesus’ friend, was seriously ill.  Jesus said to the apostles “Let us go to Judea again” (John 11:7).  This band of His closest followers cautioned Jesus.  Lazarus lived in Bethany, just a few miles from Jerusalem.  Jesus had many enemies there and if they went to Bethany, there was a good chance that Jesus could be arrested or worse.  As we know from that Bible account, when this danger was presented to Jesus, He was unconcerned.   He wanted to go to Bethany and see His friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  Thomas was the one who spoke up and said: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).

Now there are a couple ways to interpret Thomas’ comment here.  It might be an expression of enormous courage.  Perhaps, Thomas wasn’t afraid to die, and he was simply encouraging the others.  “Come on.  Let’s go to Bethany and support Jesus even if it means we die with him.”  On the other hand, Thomas could have been expressing fear.  Knowing the problems Jesus’ has had with the religious leaders, Thomas could have heard rumors that they wanted rid of this Rabbi, permanently.  So Tomas is trying to warn of the possible dangers while also accepting the inevitable, that Jesus had every intension of going.  Yet another possibility is that Thomas said this sarcastically.

You know the kind of statement I’m taking about: “Let’s go to Bethany and die.  Now, there’s a great idea.  Let me suggest that we save the long walk to Bethany.  Let’s hold hands, sing “Lord, I’m Coming Home” and jump off that cliff over there.  Yes, yes, let us go to Bethany, that we might die with him.”  Of course, it’s hard to tell from the Biblical account, was Thomas offering encouragement, expressing fear or being sarcastic?  It could have been any, or, all of the above.  Since we don’t have access to a video where we can hear the words and see the body language, we simply can’t know for sure.

Thomas’ second cameo came during the dinner table conversation on the night of our Lord’s betrayal and arrest.  Here we glimpse Thomas’ preference for language that is clear and straightforward.  He was a “tell it like it is” realist who seemed to have no patience for speaking with rhetorical flourish.  In this particular incident, Thomas seemed impatient with Jesus because our Lord had not expressed Himself as clearly as Thomas wanted.

Jesus had just commented, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:1-2).  Then a verse later Jesus continues, “And you know the way to the place where I am going” (John 14:4).  When Thomas heard this, he wasn’t satisfied.

Thomas wanted clarification and asked a follow-up question.  “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?” (John 14:5).  To embellish and paraphrase Thomas a bit, “Jesus, you need to be clearer about this journey.  If you want us to show up where you are going, give us a map.  Write out the directions.  Don’t just leave us hanging with lovely words about the Father’s house having many dwelling places.  Be specific about the way we’re supposed to go.  I want details.  Turn by turn directions.”  Thomas’ third appearance in St. John’s gospel is, of course, the most memorable.  This is the occasion that solidifies his reputation as the doubting one.  

In our gospel reading for last Sunday’s 10:00 AM service, we heard how some of the women that had come from Galilee with Jesus had, early in the morning of this same day, gone to the tomb to finish the burial rites for Jesus.  Mary Magdalene was stunned when she found the grave empty.  And as we read in St. John’s account, she first assumed that Jesus’ body had been stolen.  Then, having had the situation explained to her by two messengers of God, Mary Magdalene ran back to the others and reported, “I have seen the Lord.”  Now, fast forward a few hours.

In this week’s reading, it’s now the evening of the same day; that is the day of Jesus’ resurrection.  The apostles and other followers of Jesus still didn’t know exactly what to make of the day’s events.  They were gathered, hiding and still in fear for their own lives.  To be fair to the whole doubting thing, we could, at this point, give all of the disciples the same nickname as Thomas, since they had all were hiding with the doors locked.  Suddenly, Jesus was there among them and said, “Peace be with you” (v. 19).  Take a moment and picture the scene.

Here we have a large group of people gathered, worried that what had just happen to Jesus was going to happen to them and suddenly Jesus is standing there, alive, well and pronouncing words of calm and peace.  This was no transparent ghost.  This wasn’t a figment of their collective imaginations.  They recognized the risen Christ, the one who they abandoned, who they watch horribly treated and crucified, as the one with whom they loved, admired, respected and had traveled the Galilean hills with.  And to solidify their belief, He shows them the nail holes in His hands and the spear wound in His side.  As Jesus did this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (v. 22).  And as we know from the story, not everyone was in attendance that evening.

Thomas was absent when all this happened.  There’s no explanation given for his absence.  Possibly he had an errand to run.  Perhaps he really was the most courageous among them and, went off to confront those who plotted to put Jesus to death.  Or, in his grief, he wanted to see the garden and tomb for himself.  All we’re told is that he wasn’t present when Jesus appeared among the others.  Then, shortly after Jesus’ appearance, the disciples share their experience with Thomas.  “We have seen the Lord” the others excitedly explain.  Somehow, for some inexplicable reason, Thomas was unimpressed.  He replies, “Unless I see the mark of nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (v. 25).

It’s from this statement here that Thomas is tagged with the eternal nickname of “Doubting Thomas.”  Thomas was either unwilling or, perhaps, even unable to accept something as important as faith in the resurrection, purely on the testimony of others.  He needed proof.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 

Now I just might be out on a limb here, but I think I can say with a great deal of certainty that Thomas didn’t have a sticker on the side of his fishing boat that claimed, “The Bible said it.  I believe it.  That settles it.”  In the absence of firsthand, convincing evidence, Thomas asked questions.  He wrestled with matters of faith.  He doubted.  Again, I want to be fair here: what was the disciples’ reaction in last week’s reading when Mary Magdalene shared her tomb experience.  St. John records, “but [her] words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24:11).  Many a sermon has been preached on this passage, but as I said at the beginning of this sermon, I want to do something different.  Far from being critical, I want to put the best construction on Thomas’ doubting.

Now bear with me, but I believe some doubt can be good.  Doubt is essential to the maturing of one’s faith.  Frederick Buechner called doubts “the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.”  Thomas understood that doubt is what pushes us to grow in our faith.  If it wasn’t for the God-given capacities to question, to push for clarification, to doubt, we would never move beyond the untested certainty of childhood.  Think of it this way:  Doubt is to faith as a transmission is to an automobile.  Let me explain.  

Think of how as an automobile pulls away from the stop sign, the engine sounds as though it’s working harder and harder.  In a matter of a few moments, you experience a gentle bump.  Even though the car continues to pick up speed, you notice the engine isn’t working as hard.  It isn’t making as much noise.  That’s because the car’s transmission has shifted into a higher gear.  Doubt is like a transmission.  It shifts us to a different faith gear; that is, into a more mature faith.

It’s inevitable, that on our faith journey, we will experience times of doubt.  When that happens, we shouldn’t allow the doubt to rule us and run away.  It’s good for us to face our doubts.  I think it’s good that we deal with them.  Struggling with doubt is a faith-building process.  Wrestling with doubt has the potential to take us to that place, that 19th century Russian philosopher Dostoyevsky (Dostea-jevsky) described when he said: “I do not believe as a child does; my hosannas have been forged in the crucible of doubt.”  Doubt and questioning can be good, if it leads us to a stronger faith and to a greater maturity in our Christian life.

There is, of course, an important caveat to consider.  As with any good idea, doubt can be taken too far.  Doubt has the capacity to move us beyond an immature faith.  On the other hand, if we become consumed by doubt, we risk sliding into cynicism, believing little or nothing.  Our credo then is reduced to nothing more than a list of what we do not believe.  This principle is expressed in the gospel reading for today.  

Eight days after the first Easter, the risen Christ returned to the room where the apostles were staying.  Jesus stretched out His hands to Thomas and said, in essence, “You said you would not believe until you had an opportunity to see and to touch.  You now can see me.  Step forward and touch me.”  Thomas was moved to faith and said, “My Lord and my God.”  When Thomas saw and touched Jesus, his questions were answered.  His doubts were resolved.  He believed.

The good news for us is, the story doesn’t end there.  Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed, or happy, are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29).  With these words, Jesus was also addressing us.  Not a one of us was present when Jesus showed Thomas His hands and side.  If we’re to have faith, we’re going to have to believe without having seen and touched.

The twin dangers of faith are to believe anything because we never have a doubt or to go to the other extreme and never believe anything because our doubts overwhelm us.  We need to find a way to live with the tension and the ambiguity between these extremes.  Indeed, doubt is an interesting thing and as our gospel reading for the past two weeks show, we all have times when our doubt can drive our actions and responses.  Healthy doubt will cause us to question, questions that will help us in maturing as Christians.  However, doubt can also be unhealthy and drive us to cynicism.  This is why God has given us His church and His Holy Spirit, to strengthen our faith and help us wrestle with questions and doubt.

God’s love and His Holy Spirit comes to us and strengthens us to get through those times of doubt and helps us to shift to a more mature understanding of our beliefs and faith.  But sometimes in the face of crushing doubt, God’s grace comes as the strength to just go ahead and believe; to keep on keeping on until our faith begins to grow.  To paraphrase John Wesley, sometimes we must live by faith until we have faith.  Thanks be to God who gives us the grace and the strength to do just that. Amen.

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