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April 24 – Bold Doubt

John 20:19-31

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The tomb is empty, Christ is risen, love wins, we are Easter people, new life abounds in creation’s glorious springtime, and nothing on earth will ever be the same again.  Right?  Right?

Welcome to the Week After.  The week after euphoria.  The week after triumph.  The week after Easter flowers, egg hunts, gatherings, Holy Week services, and hallelujahs. This is the point in the liturgical year when we take a good, hard look at God’s post-resurrection world, and think, “Now what?”  Or, if we’re painfully, brutally honest: “So what?”

I don’t know about you, but I am beyond grateful for the Gospel reading from John this week, because it reminds me that the resurrection story honours these questions.  The week after has always been murky, messy, and complicated.  We aren’t the first human beings to struggle with it, and we won’t be the last.  In fact, struggle seems to be intrinsic to the post-Easter story. 

This morning’s reading strikes me as an appropriate one for this church on this day in this year in this place.

The disciples are in hiding on the evening of the first day of the week. Their community has suffered a great loss: a devastating and the world as we have known it has changed forever sort of loss.

Mary Magdalene has told them of her encounter with Jesus at the tomb and they have come together in a state of fear, confusion, and grief.

Thomas is missing but the others have come together in community. Jesus appears and stands among them. Twice he says to them, Peace be with you. This everyday greeting implies more than simply hello; it carries a sense of: May God give you every good thing.

The disciples rejoice in his presence. Jesus has them look at his hands and his side, which is John’s way of saying that this is no apparition, no virtual appearance.

Jesus’ words are few, but they are important. First, he commissions the disciples: As God sent me, so I’m sending you.

The commentator William Barclay points out that this commission reveals important truths. It means, that Jesus needs the church. As Barclay writes, “The Church was to be a mouth to speak for Jesus, feet to run upon his errands, hands to do his work. The church is born to be an agent of God’s resurrecting mission in and for the world.”

So, I’m sending you. Jesus needs the church. The church needs Jesus.

Barclay reminds us of another truth: that just as Jesus witnessed to the power of radical hospitality and love, the church is called to a life of radical hospitality and love.

Just by reading or listening to the news, scrolling the internet, we know that the pain and brokenness of the world calls us as a community of faith to look beyond our walls and practice these radical acts.  

Because if we are honest, let us not forget that we, too, have had moments when our own churches and denominations forgot their call to radical hospitality and love. We also know that the same churches that committed great wrongs have sometimes found within their traditions the power to change.

Jesus needs the church. The church needs Jesus. We must never forget our call to live and practice radical hospitality and love.

But one of the disciples, Thomas, was missing in action on that Sunday evening. Thomas was something of a loner and a strong-willed person. Thomas has come down through history as something of a skeptic, as the Doubting Thomas, which is not altogether fair. Thomas was in fact an unusually fervent believer. Earlier in John’s gospel it was Thomas who insisted that the disciples go with Jesus on his high-risk mission to Bethany when word came of Lazarus’ illness. When the other disciples tell Thomas about the appearance of Jesus, he refuses to believe them. “I’ll never believe it without putting my finger in the nail marks and my hand into the spear wound,” he says.

Thomas is present when the disciples gather a week later. Although the doors are again locked, Jesus appears and greets them as before with the words, “Peace be with you.” He turns to Thomas and invites him to impose his test. Thomas touches his hands and his side and proclaims, “My Savior and my God!” Jesus says to Thomas, “You’ve become a believer

because you saw me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Let’s unpack this a bit:

First, Jesus does not condemn Thomas’ doubt. He honours it. It appears that the whole purpose of Jesus’ visit that night is to reassure the one disciple whose faith depends on a different form of witness than the others. Thomas needs to feel the mark of the nails and his side so Jesus meets his need.

Second, there is no rebuke of Thomas for his doubt, but Jesus makes this a teaching moment, nonetheless. He knows that the future of the church will depend on the disciples’ ability to help people believe who have not experienced his physical presence in human form.

Third, as poet Amy Hunter puts it, Thomas’ response to Jesus, is “My Savior and my God!” She writes that this is the high point of John’s Gospel. “When Thomas gets it, he gets it. No one else has offered such devotion or named Jesus as God. Thomas holds out for an experience of Jesus on his own terms by the reality of seeing Jesus. Only then does he make his statement of faith.”

And a bold statement it is!

What strikes me most about Thomas’ story is not that he doubted, but that he did so publicly, without shame or guilt, and that his faith community allowed him to do so.  And what I love about Jesus’ response is that he met Thomas right where he was, freely offering the disciple the testimony of his own wounds, his own pain.  After such an encounter, I can only imagine the tenderness and urgency with which Thomas was able to repeat Jesus’ words to others: “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.”  Because isn’t this all of us, on the Sunday after Easter?  Don’t we all wrestle with hidden doubts, hidden fears?  Don’t we all wonder sometimes if the miracle of resurrection will hold in Ordinary Time?

If nothing else, Thomas reassures me that faith doesn’t have to be straightforward; the business of accepting the resurrection, of living it out, of sharing it with the world, is tough.  It’s okay to waver.  It’s okay to doubt. It’s okay to take our time.  It’s okay to hope for more.

Wounds and doubts.  The encounter between them is what life looks like after the tomb.  When Thomas’ doubts met Jesus’ wounds, new life erupted, faith blossomed, and the community grew.  Resurrection happened all over again.

I like to think that Thomas would have felt at home here at Parkminster. A place where questions and doubts are welcomed with love. A place where inclusiveness is at the forefront of our mission and ministry. A place where we can admit when we haven’t always gotten it right, where we can make mistakes, but work together to learn and live out radical hospitality and justice not just within this community but in the world.

Let me tell you about Hillhurst United Church in Calgary. It has its own resurrection story – from declining downtown church to a model that many churches look to as they reimagine their own future and mission in the world. Hillhurst is a church that changes lives. It’s a church that inflames passion: passion for truth and questions, passion for justice, passion for righteousness. It’s a church that takes radical hospitality and love seriously.

What they have practiced, in the tradition of Thomas and of our own United Church of Canada, is a tradition of Bold Doubt.

They have done that because the Hillhurst community are committed to a life of radical hospitality and love. They are not perfect, nor do they always get it right. But they are willing to try new things. Reach out in new ways. And not worry so much about whether it works out or not. They are not going to be silenced or lower their standards or their expectations. I, for one, celebrate a congregation that is unashamed and unapologetic in this way. I see this same passion at Parkminster. A passion for outreach and justice. A passion to engage in the important and challenging work of anti-racism and right relations. To speak out against climate injustice. To make mistakes, to admit that we don’t always know, but to remain committed to living and working as a community practicing radical love and hospitality.

Like Thomas, our churches are called to stand and give a “Yes” to life and a “No” to forces that deny life to all of God’s people.

In this season of resurrection, let us be bold in our doubt and bold in our faith. May Jesus’ words to the disciples be words for us, Parkminster United Church: Peace be with you. I’m sending you.

So, friends, as Easter people, let us go and change the world!

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Heather Power