Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The humble family living room has gone through significant changes over the centuries. In the 16th century, the “drawing room” as it was known was a stately, formal place reserved for visiting guests. Drawing may seem to be an odd, description since no one would paint or draw there. The name was actually derived from the practice of “withdrawing” in private to be with guests. By the late 19th century, the living room had evolved into the “parlor” deriving from the French verb ‘Parle’ meaning ‘to speak.’ It was becoming less formal, but still reserved for special occasions. Oddly, in early 20th century, the parlor or front room was often called the “death room.” Influenza was so prevalent, that the recently deceased were often stored or laid out in this room. It was an intentional switch to claim this very same space as a “living room” where families and guests could spend time together talking, reading, listening to music and watching television. It is after all where families spend most of their informal time.
I would dare to say that the Cenacle, or the Upper Room in Jerusalem, which you see on today’s bulletin cover, is perhaps the first and most important living room in the history of Christian faith. Although its identification as the biblical Upper Room dates back to the 4th century, the current structure was erected only in the 14th century, which accounts for the Gothic-era column in in the forefront. In the background, you can see a potted olive tree. This is to mark the connection between Jesus’ celebrating his last supper with his disciples in this room, and their subsequent walk to the Garden of Gethsemane immediately afterwards to pray. For this reason alone it is a much sought-after destination for Christians on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Unfortunately, like so many important sites, the Cenacle is at the center of a political controversy between Christian, Jews and Muslims, effectively shutting the doors and barring the space to all religious visits. Muslims, you see, consider it to be a mosque, and indeed, there is a minaret on top of the building, and Jews consider the lower level of this structure to be the Tomb of David, which has belonged to the State of Israel since 1948. On rare occasions, Christian leaders are permitted to celebrate communion in the Upper Room, but it is not common and is done only with permission.
According to tradition, the Cenacle is where the apostles stayed when they were in Jerusalem celebrate the Passover before Jesus’ crucifixion. It the living room where they spent much time together in that last week listening and speaking with Jesus. It was where he washed his disciples’ feet modeling a ministry of service; it was where Jesus introduced the concept of a loving friendship, and first called his disciples friends. It was where Jesus offered his disciples a glimpse of eternity in his farewell teaching in the comforting words, “In my Father’s House are many rooms.” It was also where he promised the giving of the Holy Spirit. By tradition, the Cenacle is also the same room where Jesus appeared again after the resurrection. It was here that the Risen Lord made visible his wounds to see and touch, and it was here the faith of Thomas emerged. It was where Jesus breathed on the disciples the Holy Spirit and where tongues of fire appeared to them on Pentecost It was from there that the apostles first went forth with boldness sharing the Good News. For all these reasons, the Upper Room is considered to be the Mother Church of the Christian faith and a living room where all believers are welcome.
While the Cenacle is a real place, we should also say, that it has served as a model for all churches- to this very day- if not in style or architecture- at least in function. The Upper Room, like every church around the world, is where disciples go for strength, encouragement, comfort and community. Long ago, the apostles retreated from the world to the Upper Room to be with Jesus. There they listened as he revealed to them the mysteries that they would one day pass on to thousands of others. It was there, above all else, that they were equipped to do the work for which they had been called. In that sense, one doesn’t need to travel to the Holy Land to encounter Upper Room. You are invited to the living room in this church where you can experience the living presence of God. Wherever you are, and whenever you take the time to find and speak and listen to God in the living room of God, you can experience his life-giving, and transformative presence. God cannot be shut and locked away from you here. Sadly, that is not how the disciple Thomas looked on the Upper Room as God’s living room.
Few details of the life of St. Thomas are actually recorded in the New Testament. Nevertheless thanks to the Evangelist St. John, we know more about Thomas and his personality than that of any other of the twelve who were closest to Jesus- except perhaps for Peter. For three years Thomas had trusted the words which his friend Jesus had spoken. He had, however, also experienced the angry disputes that occurred when Jesus preached- especially in Jerusalem. The crowds threw stones to drive Jesus and his disciples out of the city which forced Jesus and the twelve to taken refuge in the desert. While they were there, they received word from Mary and Martha, that their brother Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, was ill. Now, the village of Bethany was only a short distance from Jerusalem, so the disciples were relieved when Jesus said they would wait another day or two. But then to their surprise, Jesus announced, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples were all reluctant. Only Thomas dared to say, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” And that moment, there was certainly no doubt that Thomas loved Jesus, and that he was willing to follow him- even in the face of death.
Again, it was Thomas who raised his voice during the disciples’ last meal together with Jesus. After Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, announced his imminent betrayal, and then warned them, that he was going to prepare a place for them, saying, “And you know the way to the place where you are going.” Only Thomas was confident enough in his relationship that he could ask the question that all the other disciples were wondering. “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
It’s one of the most honest and human confessions in all scripture. And Thomas says it for us. There are times when we simply don’t know or understand what God is doing. We may have the security of the words of Holy Scripture, the presence of the promised Holy Spirit and even the mystery of the church in this world, but we still wonder what God is doing and where we are going. Thomas captures all our insecurities and anxieties and dares to ask, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus simply reassures him with, “You will know, since you have a relationship with me.”
And finally, we have the story from St. John’s gospel which earned the apostle Thomas the title Doubting. He questioned the good news that Jesus had been raised from the dead. “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.” He loved Jesus so much that he refused to believe, and he refused to return to the living room with the other disciples.
Unfortunately, that’s how many men and women fall from the Christian faith and the life of the church. At some crucial moment in their faith journey, they find themselves standing in the wrong place and ever since then it has been difficult to return and to believe. Perhaps, you have known someone, or you have experienced such a moment of doubt yourself. That’s why the story of Thomas is so important, even today.
For whatever reason, Thomas came to realize that the place to search for the answers was not within himself, but rather within the company of other believers. So a week later when Jesus returned, Thomas was there. And Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” It was an invitation to see and believe. Then Jesus said something to Thomas in the Cenacle that he meant for the rest of those in the living room to hear: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” It was St. John’s way of letting his readers know that Jesus was not going to do what he did for Thomas and appear among us bodily and tangibly again. If you and I are going to believe, we will have to do so without “seeing him.”
It is my question and perhaps yours as well, But how? If we are not going to see Jesus with our own eyes and hear Jesus with our own ears, is there anything at all on which we can base our faith? What are the signs of the resurrection?
Perhaps it will surprise you, but my friends, the answer is not to be found in an historical building you see on a pilgrimage in the Holy Land. No, the answer is to be found in “living room of the church” here and now. When, like Thomas, I am tempted to doubt the Easter message, I remember the faces and the faithfulness of the people I have known in the church. When musicians rehearse long hours to lead and lift us to the praise of God, it is a sign of the resurrection. When the flowers that grace our sanctuary on Sunday are divided into little bundles and taken to the sick and shut-in friends, it is a sign of the resurrection. When the wearied and joyous members of our church sit down together over coffee, when a quiet word of witness is spoken in a Bible study to a seeker, and when followers of Jesus pray for peace, I see signs of the resurrection.
When people laugh and cry together over the joys and disappointments of their lives, when death is faced honestly and hopefully, when grace and mercy, not condemnation and harshness, govern our relationships, and when the church opens its heart and its doors to whoever comes yearning for the love of God, excluding no one, I am convinced that Jesus is alive.
My friends, in the midnight hour of the soul, when you are wrestling with doubt, when everything you have been holding onto seems to have fallen away, turn again like Thomas to the place where your faith can be nurtured, to the living room of the church, where Christ promises he will meet you- in the mystery of God’s word and sacraments. Yes, in these simple means of grace, Jesus invites you “to place your fingers into the nail prints” and to “place your hand into his side.” For seeing is believing. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.