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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In my Easter Sunday sermon, I shared with you my conviction that “Faith in the resurrection comes slowly, but when it comes, it changes everything.” Throughout the season of Easter, I would like to offer a series of meditations on the changes that do occur. This morning, let us focus on the elimination of fear and doubt and the familiar story of Doubting Thomas.
Fear has a way of coloring life and holding us back. Norman Vincent Peale, the author of “The Power of Positive Thinking,” once wrote, “Fear is never a reason for quitting; it is only an excuse.” Arthur Ashe, the first black tennis player to be selected to the United States Davis Cup team and the only black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open said, “Fear isn’t an excuse to come to a standstill. It’s the impetus to step up and strike.” Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel reminds the world today that, “Fear has never been a good advisor.”
Even pastors live with fear- and for many that is the fear of the Sunday morning sermon. We know that a good sermon should have a good beginning and a good ending, and that they should be as close together as possible. We just don’t know whether we have enough in between. 30 years ago, I was taught, stand up boldly, outline three points strongly, and sit down quickly. A young seminarian, however, was not convinced by this counsel, and asked me, “So, how many points are really needed in a good sermon?” After critiquing his last sermon, I sighed, “Well, at least one.” Faith in the resurrection reminds us that fear doesn’t have to be the final word.
St. John tells us that on that first Easter evening, as the women returned from the tomb, and told Jesus’ disciples what they had seen, there was still fear. Huddled together in their large upper room; the doors were shut; the drapes were drawn; the windows were closed and the disciples were scared. The evangelist writes explicitly about the emotion and sentiment behind the closed doors. Fear kept the disciples there.
It is just as true today. Fear has a way of shutting all sorts of doors. We may have heard the story of Easter that Jesus destroyed the power of the death and the devil, but we refuse to let the news enter into our lives. It may be the fear of disease, or the fear of the truth, or even the fear of change that keeps us a prisoner behind closed doors. Yes, fear causes you to live a safe, but isolated existence rather than to live by the deeper virtues of faith, hope, and love. Fear shuts the doors to anyone who is a “stranger,” because your fear sees the “other” as a more of a threat than a friend. The good news of the resurrection, however, was that in spite the walls and the locked doors, Jesus walked right through them. And his greeting to his disciples was one of peace. He breathed on them a peace that dispelled their fear. That is the good news of Easter. It is a message that no matter how strong the walls, or impenetrable the door, whatever fear has kept you prisoner, Jesus’ spirit marches right on through bringing you his peace. Yes, strengthened by the Holy Spirit the disciples were able to fling open the locked doors of fear and proclaim the word of Jesus’s resurrection in their lives. The same will be true for you.
My friends, nothing can stop Christ’s spirit from entering into and changing your life – not even stone wall and locked doors. It is the promise of Easter. Jesus enters into the closed up, prison cells of life, and casts out all your fears. “Faith in the resurrection, you see, comes slowly, but when it comes, it changes everything.”
Unfortunately, Thomas was not there to see Jesus enter in and to cast out their fears. The other disciples offered Thomas their words of comfort, but he demanded exactly what they had experienced themselves– to see the wounded hands and the pierced side of Jesus. Thomas had his own doubts and questions. He was not satisfied with their second-hand reports. He wanted to see for himself. And why shouldn’t he? Thomas had seen his Lord and friend mistreated, beaten, and then crucified on that long dreadful Friday afternoon. He had probably spent the last two days pulling the broken pieces of his life back together again, and he was trying to figure out what to do next. He had passed through that first stage of fear. In fact, he might have already started getting on with his life – why else would he be out and about that first Easter Sunday when the rest of the disciples were still hiding behind locked doors.
I imagine we are all a bit like skeptical Thomas. We have questions for God and about faith. We have big questions such as, “Is there a God?” or “How do we know the Bible is true?” or “Why is there evil in the world?” And then we have the more personal questions such as “Why did I have this heart attack? Why cancer? Why did my child die so young? Why am I and my family having all these troubles?” So we are all like the doubting disciple: we have questions and we don’t hide them. But we’re also like Thomas in another way. We want proofs and signs. We would like God to work some miracles in our lives so we can believe more easily. We would like God to rearrange the stars up in heaven to spell out, “I exist” preferably in English as a sign that there really is a God who personally cares for us and our lives. Yes, all Christians have doubts, and questions. That is the way that we were created: to ask questions, to inquire, to think, to sort out, and ultimately to be drawn closer to God.
Doubt, you see, doesn’t necessarily need to lead to despair, but instead it can lead to discovery. Indeed, doubts and questions often lead to deeper and richer faith. Centuries ago, Copernicus doubted that the earth was the center of the universe, yet the Christians around him were using and quoting the Bible to prove that the earth was the center of the universe. His doubt of their reading led him to a larger and richer understanding of the Christian faith. Centuries ago, certain Christians were using and quoting the Bible to say that the earth was flat and had edges and if you sailed too far, your ship would fall over the edge off the earth. Christopher Columbus doubted the Christianity he had been taught, and his doubts led him to a deeper and larger faith.
“Faith in the resurrection comes slowly, but when it comes, it changes everything.” Thomas’ faith in the resurrection changed everything. But it came after he had a chance to voice his doubts. That may be true for you as well. Sometimes, faith simply needs the freedom of questions and doubt to really spring forth and take hold. And sometimes, we need proofs and signs. It’s what Thomas said he needed. Surprisingly, Thomas didn’t need to place his fingers into Jesus’ wounds. Seeing was believing.
Twenty years ago, I was asked by the Bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod to serve as the Interim Pastor for Bread of Life Lutheran Church for the Deaf. No, American Sign Language wasn’t one of the languages I had mastered, but the Bishop thought that I would simply treat deafness as another language. I learned something about preaching there. The deaf congregation taught me to preach through stories instead of theological phrases. Something I try to do even today.
Over the course of next 8 months, they even taught me a few signs. Thank you, I love you, and Amen. They also taught me about Jesus and the resurrection. You can spell words with American Sign Language, but names of people are often given a simple sign. As the pastor I had one. Unfortunately, the sign was so similar to the sign for Men’s Room, that it made the congregation laugh every time to tried to use it. The creators of American Sign Language created a sign for Jesus that would not have been so meaningful were it not for the story of Doubting Thomas. Every time, the deaf speak of Jesus, they sign his crucifixion. The left middle finger touches the right palm, in sequence, and then the right middle finger touches the left palm. No words are necessary. Jesus is the one with wounded hands. It is powerful sign that through Jesus’ wounds, we have life. True life. And we need not fear anymore or doubt.
For me, that is a personal word of hope. In the darkest moments of despair, in the moments when I question and doubt God’s purpose, and I fear what may come to pass, I am reminded in this simple yet, profound sign of the nails in the hands, that there is one who knows intimately my pain and suffering, because he suffered as well and his hands bear the marks. Jesus himself has cried, “I thirst” and “My God, My God what have you forsaken me.” If there is truly nothing in all creation that can separate me from God’s love- than the wounded hands of Christ and his pierced side are the wonderful proof of the assurance that this is most certainly true. There is no need to doubt or fear- for all will be well. And his peace will come.
Pastors still live with the fear of preaching next Sunday’s sermon- trying to the good beginning and the good ending. As for the purpose of the sermon, it should lead one’s listeners to believe and know the truth of the resurrection. St. John closes his gospel with these words. “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, but these words are written so that you may believe in Jesus, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Faith in the resurrection comes slowly, even to those who doubt, but when it comes, it changes everything and opens the door to a new way of life. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.