Thomas was late. He was a whole week late for the resurrection. And he was entirely too stubborn and too practical to take the word of others, to believe something so ridiculously impossible.
He refused to believe that Jesus was risen unless he could see and touch. An empirical kind of guy. A good science student.
And also a twin. Hence, he knew what mistaken identity was like. Identical twins often have problems with that. “No, I’m Thomas. You want Terry. He’s the one goofing off over there.”
Thomas knew that people could think they saw someone and be mistaken about who it was. He probably thought that's what his fellow disciples had done. When you think about it, there are lots of things we human beings are not entirely sure about.
There is some scholarly controversy about how John’s Gospel ends. Let’s look at the ending we have here, although we’re not going to get scholarly about it.
It takes place a week after the resurrection with Jesus appearing again. This time Thomas sees him. Jesus recognizes and forgives Thomas’s weakness and doubt. Jesus shows himself to him, and Thomas is overwhelmingly reassured. It might seem an odd ending for a gospel, but, in fact, scholars tell us that this was the original conclusion.
When I teach writing, I recommend that conclusions reflect introductions. But instead of ending on the high note of great theology on which John begins his gospel – (In the beginning was the Word . . . .) – or with a final outburst of praise for the resurrection, we instead get this story of a person whose faith is so uncertain that he can only believe if he can see and touch for himself. Maybe this is the story not only of Thomas, but also of us.
John always has a theological purpose when he tells his stories. One theological point in this story concerns the fact that Thomas had gone off alone, and as a result, he had missed seeing the resurrected Jesus. If he had stayed with the others, he would have met Jesus right along with them on that first Easter Day. But finally, a week later, he rejoins them and meets Jesus at last.
John’s point is that Thomas was in a state of doubt – a state of unfaith – or at least a state of weakened faith – because he had separated himself from the group. John’s telling us that we meet and recognize Christ in company with others, rather than alone. (Frankly, I’ve had an occasional person tell me that they have met Jesus – face to face – when no one else was around.) But in general, I agree with John.
So what does this mean? It means that to meet Christ, we have to do so with other people. We have to do it with the church, which might mean that some people have to put up with others with whom they might not be so comfortable. We have to endure that strange hodgepodge of people who make up the church, even if we don’t always agree with them.
Somewhere I heard that if you put five Episcopalians together, you’ll hear five different opinions on any given subject. That’s not at all unusual for us. We all do agree that Jesus Christ is our Savior. But after that, our opinions diverge. And that’s OK. We’re Episcopalians -- and God loves us.
Americans today – and not just Episcopalians – have a strongly subjective and individualistic bias in our understanding of religion. Where do we meet God? The locus, the place, for this primary meeting between us and God has, over the last couple of centuries, shifted from the community to the inner life of the individual. Our 21st century worldview is that the place where one has communion with God – is within oneself.
I want to sort of digress here and talk about the Rev. Michael W. Merriman, whose sermon entitled “Meeting Christ Requires Company” I am borrowing heavily on.
Prior to parking in front of the computer and starting to write, I [past tense] read quite a lot as sermon writers so often do. I narrowed my reading to six or seven things, and I read them again. And again. And again. Suddenly my brain (or the Holy Spirit?) said “this one,” and I drew an asterisk on it and put all the other stuff back in a file. Merriman, *’ed – or was it the Holy Spirit? – really spoke to me.
Merriman has been an Episcopal priest for over 29 years, including at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco where I went once in a while with my Grandmother Pat. He’s a published author. He’s active in the church on the national level and has great credentials. I agree with a lot of what he has to say.
Nevertheless, we Episcopalians are encouraged to think for ourselves. Study Scripture and tradition using our God-given reasoning ability. OK. I can do that.
In his sermon Merriman makes reference to Eugene Peterson. I’m going to play Thomas here, questioning even those with whom I quite often heartily agree – like Eugene Peterson. Merriman says that “The place where one has communion with God is in oneself; this has had unhappy consequences.” He goes on to quote Eugene Peterson, whose books take up a special corner of one of my cluttered book shelves that you can find in our living room. And the bedroom And the hall. And my office. As well as beside my rocking chair.
Peterson, who is a contemporary spiritual theologian, says that “Love cannot exist in isolation. Away from others, love gloats into pride. Grace cannot be privately received. Cut off from others, it is perverted into greed. Hope cannot develop in solitude. Separated from the community, it goes to seed in the form of fantasies. No gift, no virtue, can develop and remain healthy apart from the community of faith.”
Now I like Eugene Peterson. But I’ve been mulling a lot of this over. I quite agree that love cannot exist in isolation. But is it possible that grace can be privately received? In isolation, is grace perverted into greed? If hope is separated from the community, will it really go to seed in the form of fantasies?
Like Thomas, I question. However I do agree that our gifts and virtues develop best in community, and that’s where they most easily remain healthy.
But listen to the conclusion Petersen draws: a society of separated individuals is characterized, then, by pride, greed, and fantasy. This might be taken as a rather startling and uncomplimentary description of American society today. But I do find it hard to make valid, broad generalizations about a population as diverse as ours.
Here’s another broad generalization. (When I taught high school English, I warned my students against using “glittering generalities” – like this one. . . .) “Outside the church, there is no salvation.” That sounds like ecclesiastical arrogance, and I suppose it can be interpreted that way. But it actually makes spiritual common sense, and it’s confirmed in everyday experience. “Apart from the community of faith, there is no salvation” might make the saying more clear. That’s why Baptism is so fundamental to everything else – because in Baptism we become members of a community inescapably and inextricably bound together.
Or we might better say that in Baptism we discover that we and all human beings, whether baptized or not, are inescapably and inextricably bound together. We are all children of God. One human family. Inescapably and inextricably bound together.
And then Thomas says, “Hey! Wait a minute. I know the family I grew up in. I know my parents and my siblings and my uncles and aunts and cousins. One of my aunts recently did that 23 and Me thing, and now half my cousins aren’t speaking to our newly discovered batch of cousins. They say, “Those guys over there are our cousins?? I don’t want to be related to them. Not only are they not kissing cousins, they’re trash! I’d cross the road to avoid them. No way do I want them to be part of our family.”
I know a family struggling with that issue right now. “I’d cross the road to avoid them” is a direct quote. I heard it from one of them in my living room just last week.
However. We are all children of God. If we read the stories of great mystics and others of deep spirituality, Christian or otherwise, we will find no persons who, on their own, experienced an encounter with God – who had not first had the idea and possibility of God introduced to them by someone else.
It takes community. We may not like it. We may much prefer to get our religious experience in solitary times such as reading, meditating, or watching a sunset. But instead, by our baptism, we have been caught up into the life of the community of faith.
This isn’t to say that we don’t need times to be alone and introspective and to meet God in the heart of our own existence. But we also need and want a place where, like it or not, even believe it or not, we can encounter the risen Christ.
We need to be able to place our hand in his side, to reach out our hands and be fed with his life, to turn to Christ beside us and reach out and embrace him – and to be embraced by Christ. Thomas did that -- in community with the other disciples.
We have just experienced an elaborate and dramatic liturgical sequence.
It’s an experience that’s not just communal. It’s also intensely personal and subjective. We anticipated the impending crucifixion, we felt its pain, and we rejoiced in the good news of our salvation, the good news of the resurrection.
And on this Second Sunday of Easter – the Sunday of Thomas as it’s sometimes called – we always read this passage from John’s gospel.
So how did it feel last Monday to go back to work, to school, to our ordinary lives? How did it feel to realize that so much of the rest of the world hadn’t even heard the news. The rest of the world wasn’t resurrected. The rest of the world was caught somewhere in the doldrums of Holy Week, or worse, of Good Friday.
It was easy to be like Thomas and to say, “It doesn’t mean anything. It was probably a case of mistaken identity. It was just the result of the bells and the flowers and the great music.”
And now today we’re back again, without the drama of last weekend, on an almost plain Sunday that the Church sometimes calls Low Sunday. And yet – and yet – here Christ comes again into our midst saying, “Peace be with you.”
In our Baptism we meet the risen Christ in our own flesh. In the Baptisms of others, we see Christ risen from death through the water of the font. In Baptism he commissions us to go into the world. He gives us the divine power to bring forgiveness to the world. Then he feeds us with his presence.
Once again he is made known to us in the breaking of the bread. Once again we discover that in Baptism we remember who God created us to be. We realize that in Baptism we have been anointed as sons and daughters of God; that we stand in the power of the risen Christ – and as we stand and pray,
the world can see Christ risen in us.
We also become aware that the reason we are called into the world in ministry is because there, too, we meet the crucified and risen Christ in others.
We care for, we minister to the helpless, the hungry, the sick, the weak, the oppressed, and the dying; because in them also Christ comes into the upper room and shows us again the mystery of his resurrection. He offers himself to us that we may love him in the flesh of our sisters and brothers.
We’re called into covenant, into community, into a place where we don’t have to rely on our own individuality. We come into a place where we, like Thomas, can meet and see and taste and touch and embrace and hold fast to the risen Christ, Christ who comes to us even now with new life, new grace, and with hope for eternal life.
To him be glory, forever and ever. Amen