"Speaking Truth" Easter 1 (April 3, 2016, Holy Covenant MCC)
Then they brought the apostles before the high council, where the high priest confronted them. “We gave you strict orders never again to teach in this one's name!” he said. “Instead, you have filled all Jerusalem with your teaching about him, and you want to make us responsible for his death!” But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead after the authorities killed him by hanging him on a cross. Then God put him in the place of honor at his right hand as Prince and Savior. He did this so the people of Israel would repent of their sins and be forgiven. We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, who is given by God to those who obey him.” When they heard this, the high council was furious and decided to kill them. But one member, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, who was an expert in religious law and respected by all the people, stood up and ordered that the men be sent outside the council chamber for a while. Then he said to his colleagues, “Leaders of Israel, take care what you are planning to do to these men! Some time ago there was that fellow Theudas, who pretended to be someone great. About 400 others joined him, but he was killed, and all his followers went their various ways. The whole movement came to nothing. After him, at the time of the census, there was Judas of Galilee. He got people to follow him, but he was killed, too, and all his followers were scattered. “So my advice is, leave these men alone. Let them go. If they are planning and doing these things merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. But if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God!” The others accepted his advice. They called in the apostles and had them flogged. Then they ordered them never again to speak in the name of Jesus, and they let them go.
John 20:19-31 That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them! “Peace be with you,” he said. As he spoke, he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side. They were filled with joy when they saw Jesus! Again he said, “Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” One of the twelve disciples, Thomas nicknamed the Twin, was not with the others when Jesus came. They told him, “We have seen Jesus!” But he replied, “I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.” Eight days later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them. The doors were locked; but suddenly, as before, Jesus was standing among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!” “My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed. Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.” The disciples saw Jesus do many other miraculous signs in addition to the ones recorded in this book. But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Child of God, and that by believing in him you will have life by the power of his name.
Will you pray with and for me? Holy One, speak through me, in spite of me; may my words be a window through which the light of your love and truth may shine. In all your many names, amen.
It is good to be here today! I am so very pleased to be here with you this morning, and I bring you greetings from your sister churches MCC Windsor and MCC Detroit.
So here we are with the traditional Sunday-after-Easter-reading--Thomas, so-called Doubting Thomas. I've always had a respect for Thomas, though--he didn't go along with the crowd of the rest of the disciples, he didn't assume that if the rest of them had seen something, then it must have really happened. No, he wanted to know for himself, He wasn't going to take anyone's word for it. And so Thomas makes his statement of bravado about fingers and hands and wounds...a bit graphic if you ask me, but clear and definite--that would indeed be proof! He reminds me of my friends who have a hard time with spirituality and mystical experiences such as prayer and labyrinths. He wants to know if such things happen, how do they happen? How is it possible for them to happen? what is the process by which, or through which, they happen? If someone says they felt a sense of peace at the center of the labyrinth, for example, my friends want to explain it as a result of the exhilaration of walking; or the crowd effect--everyone else says they feel peaceful, so the power of suggestion makes them feel peaceful. And so on.
Thomas refuses to be drawn into the herd instinct. He stands apart and insists on his own experience. Which is, that he hasn't seen any risen Jesus, and until he is certain it's really Jesus and not a ghost or apparition or ghost or mirage, he's not going to assume it is Jesus, who cares what Peter and John and Andrew and all the others say.
It takes a lot of courage to stand up like that, to be so strong of character that you will not give in to what the group thinks, even your group of friends and family. Even when it is something you want very much to believe, as Thomas wanted to believe that Jesus was not dead.
It takes the same kind of courage for Gamaliel, the member of the Jewish Council who stood up for the apostles, to speak in their defence. But he has a very good point. If the apostles are not sent by God, if their message is not, in fact, of divine origin, then it will fall apart and vanish, whether the council supports it or not. If it is sent by God, then there is nothing they can do to prevent it, and if they try, then they will be working against God. It is maybe an uncomfortable truth, when the rest of the council wants to toss the apostles out on their ears, but he insists on it.
Both of them, both Gamaliel and Thomas, are aware of a truth that it is easy to put aside or forget. We do not know the whole story. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way. He said, "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."
We can't see the end of the road from where we are; all we can do is step out in faith, knowing we are making the best decision we can for the moment we are in. Thomas was honest in his doubt; in his faith, he spoke his doubt. "I need to know that this is for sure Jesus," he says, in effect. "I want to know those are really his wounds. I don't want to be fooled by my hope and my longing to see Jesus again."
Jesus honoured that doubt and called his bluff--"Go ahead, touch my wounds." And that was enough for Thomas. Actually it was more than enough. Thomas became, according to tradition, one of the great evangelists, carrying the gospel to India, so that when Europeans arrived in the 1500s, they were greeted by the Mar Thoma Christians. "Mar" is Aramaic for "lord" or "lady"--so Lord Thomas, the one who had brought the word of God to India. Incidentally, that's also the origin of the names "Martha" and "Mark"....just saying....
That insistence on doubt by Thomas led to so much more than his doubts being laid to rest. So often, what seems minor or a small action to us has major effects for others.
I'm sure we've seen the YouTube videos of one person helping another, who helps another, who helps another--until it circles around and the first people is helped. Or--my personal favourite--the one from Singapore, in which the man performs small acts of kindness, that very few others would even notice. He moves a dying plant over to catch the water running out out of a downspout; helps the older woman get her food cart up over the curb; gives the beggar woman and her daughter the last of his cash; shares his meal with a stray dog. And in the end, he has a new pet, a lovely tree blooms, a child is going to school. No great reward, no special recognition--but the reward of friendship and a life well-lived. He doesn't do those things for any reward at all.
Facebook is a very interesting place, as those of you on it know. One of the rewards of Facebook that I appreciate is reconnecting with friends from high school. I know that for some of us high school was not really a wonderful time or place. The first year or so were not for me, either. But then things settled into place, and I found my tribe. I wasn't out at the time--partly because I was so confused by my feelings, being bi/pan sexual--but a deeper part of me knew, and the people I was closest to at the time are either part of the LGBTTIQ community today--including two of my ex-boyfriends, go figure--or are firm allies. Shortly after I reconnected with one of the latter, she messaged me and said she had been hoping we would reconnect, as she had always wanted to thank me. And then she told me this story. When we were both in 8th grade, we had been in a horseback riding camp over the summer. She had felt awkward as she had had little direct experience with horses, unlike most of the rest of us. I had, apparently, helped her with some of those basics instead of teasing her or ignoring her struggles. She had remembered that and wanted to express her gratitude that I had made the camp bearable and even fun instead of a nightmare. The truth is that while I just barely remember the camp and her being a part of it, I don't remember helping her at all. I don't doubt her memory, or that I did something at some point that she found helpful and supportive. That I don't remember it doesn't matter. She remembers it, and it matters very much to her.
I tell the story not to show what a good person I am--if I were doing that, I would no doubt remember helping her and 16 other people in the class, not mention rescuing a whole school of orphans from a flood.
The point is, it is the small, almost unintentional comments, moments, actions that we do that can change lives. I am willing to bet that Gamaliel, the member of the Jewish council, didn't think again about that morning meeting with the followers of that carpenter Joshua, AKA Jesus--they didn't become prominent in his lifetime. And Thomas could not have known, on that early morning, that his doubt would result in a journey to a very different land and culture, to plant the knowledge and love of Christ on the continent of Asia.
That doesn't mean that we should be fearful to speak or act--after all, not speaking or acting may have a result, too! But we should be aware that our actions, our words, will have results we know nothing of at this moment--and none the less, we move forward in faith. Even when we cannot see all of the staircase, we take the first step in faith. My friends, take the first step in faith, confident that although we may not see the whole staircase, the grace and power and love that oversees our lives knows every step. In all the many names of our loving God, amen.