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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.
It is perhaps merely an “urban legend,” but there was a thrifty and cost conscious business executive whose office had a burned-out, 6 foot fluorescent light. Rather than pay the exorbitant price of having the maintenance department replace the bulb, the executive decided secretly to replace the bulb himself. So he snuck into his office early one morning with a new 6 foot fluorescent bulb and replaced the old one. He then planned to leave the office late, take the burned-out bulb with him on the subway, and dispose of it at a construction site near his home.
When he entered the subway car, he held the old 6 foot fluorescent bulb upright and waited for his stop. Then a strange thing happened. Other people entered the subway and they, too, began to hold onto his 6 foot bulb, as if it were a standing support. By the time the subway arrived at the executive’s stop, five different people were holding onto his 6 foot bulb. What was the thrifty business executive to do? He simply walked off the subway and left them holding the bulb.
Human beings have a fondness for holding onto things even if they don’t really offer the stability that they appear to – and at times, this can include the followers of Jesus- especially those whose faith that has never been tested or tempered. Thomas, you see, was not the only follower of Jesus to be filled with skepticism. I imagine that every one of us in our most painful and honest hours has had moments of doubt. We’re not proud of them, but they are real- just the same.
My friends, if that is how you have experienced the good news of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead this Easter in the face of the corona virus, you are not alone. And the story of Doubting Thomas, should give you consolation and encouragement that Christ will not leave you- even if you feel your faith is as fragile as someone clinging to the false support of a 6 foot fluorescent bulb.
We should never criticize the honest, but skeptical Thomas, nor should we judge him as a lesser apostle. For three years Thomas had trusted and acted on the words which his friend Jesus had spoken. He understood that his master’s journey would lead him to a tree on a hill called Calvary. On the road to Jerusalem he had sounded the battle cry to the other disciples, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” There was no doubt that Thomas loved Jesus. And yet, when the expected truly did happen, when his friend Jesus was crucified and buried, Thomas was crushed beneath the weight of the cross. He didn’t want to share his loss. He didn’t want others to experience his pain. He wanted to be alone with his grief. And so it came to pass that on the first day of the week when Jesus was raised from the dead and returned to his disciples to offer his peace and stand in their midst, Thomas was not there.
Interestingly, the other disciples were doubtful and skeptical as well. The unconfirmed rumors of the resurrection in St. John’s gospel started by Mary Magdalene, Peter and the beloved disciple had brought neither understanding nor clarity in the disciples. Instead, they were hiding in the Upper Room behind closed doors where they remained perplexed, amazed, cynical, doubtful and fearful- all at the same time. Yes, they were like many of us. They were conflicted. They knew what they should believe. They remembered what Jesus had said. They trusted what he had promised would happen. But now at the moment when they heard the good news of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, they were filled with doubt and fear.
That may surprise you, but maybe that is the message you need to hear this day. Good news does not necessarily erase human fear. Even though we trust and believe that it should. Yes, good news, incredible news, should ignite hope, but my friends, even hope doesn’t always eliminate genuine fear. So, there the disciples gathered again in the Upper Room, in the familiar place where Jesus had last been present with them. In that very place, they desperately longed for the strength and hope to combat a new and unfamiliar fear. An empty tomb, you see, wasn’t enough to confirm all that Jesus had promised was true. The disciples needed something more.
Suddenly in their midst, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” There was no doubt that it was Jesus. They recognized his scars and only then, did the disciples rejoice. Yes, they were astonished, ashamed and afraid. They all felt as the most unlikely and undeserving of disciples, unworthy of being Jesus’ apostles to spread the good news. Then Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The disciples’ eyes were opened, and their fears were calmed. Which brings us back to the story of Thomas.
What Jesus’ disciples saw and experienced in that Upper Room was all that Thomas desired. Too often we focus on Thomas’ doubt, but the lone disciple’s request was merely for what the other’s had already experienced. The other disciples had celebrated the resurrection, but for Thomas, the good news remained too good to be true. He wanted to believe, but he simply couldn’t. “Unless I see in his hands the prints of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas was left holding the 6 foot fluorescent bulb as the subway came to a screeching halt.
Thomas’ desire for certainty in the midst of his doubts and fears is perhaps the same thing that we all desire in the face of the corona virus. We long for the assurance and confidence that all will be well. We want to know that God is in charge even as leaders are struggling to find their way. We want to know that we can place our lives, our cares and our fears into that ultimate hope that is found in a loving God- yes, even when we cannot see the ending. My friends, the hope filled witness of Thomas’ story is the willingness of Jesus to meet the struggling disciple exactly where he needed to be met. There was no criticism for Thomas’ request. Rather Jesus offered him his simple invitation. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” A week earlier, the disciples had rejoiced in the Upper Room, and now at last Thomas could give his praise as well.
Thomas, of course, had an advantage when he was struggling with his doubts. He, like the other disciples, could go back to that familiar Upper Room where they were renewed by Jesus’ living presence. For us at Lake of the Isles, however, and for countless believers around the world, the doors to the familiar sacred places that have nurtured our faith in times of trouble are locked. But my friends, you needn’t give in to doubt and fear. Martin Luther wrote, “When the believer feels himself doubting, let him practice faith, fight against doubt, and labor to capture certainty.” God is to be found in other places. So where should you begin?
This morning, I would like to commend to you three places where should expect to encounter the Lord and to be strengthened in faith. Today, you have placed yourself within the reach of worship, and that is good- even if it is simply virtual. Your decision last night or this morning to participate in worship, even knowing who the preacher would be, was the first movement in your experience to see the Lord and believe. You put your foot directly on the path of God when you crossed the threshold into worship. And now you are being drawn into the spoken word. In Holy Scripture, God chooses to be intimate and profound. For scripture is like an open window that God enters with his epic story of redemption and reconciliation. And striding through the whole story is the figure of Jesus, the incarnate Word.
Secondly, you encounter the deep wells of faith when you open yourself to the mystery of prayer. Now as a church we regularly focus on the anointing power of the water and the Word in Holy Baptism, and in the mystery of the bread and wine of Holy Communion, but in this time of social distancing, we are reminded that God uses others means of grace as well. Yes, in the sweet hour of prayer, you can share your thoughts with God even when you cannot find the words. And he will answer you in ways that you cannot imagine. That is how God will speak to you until that day comes when at the Lord’s Table his pierced hand will offer you the gift of his presence again, and his own voice will whisper into your heart his promise of peace and salvation.
Finally, you may experience the Lord’s presence when you enter into Christian fellowship with others. Jesus promised that where ever two or three are gathered in his name, there he will be present in their midst. You and I have not been called into our own personal relationship with God estranged from the needs of our neighbors and community, but we have been called into a vibrant fellowship known as the body of Christ. In the meeting of believers, where mutual joys and sorrows are shared on the level of a common faith, there you and I have every right to believe that Christ will make his presence known.
In the face of the challenges and doubts of the corona virus, I ask you: What support are you holding onto? When life makes a sudden stop, will you find yourself holding onto something solid, or will you discover that you grasping onto nothing more than a 6 foot fluorescent bulb?
My friends, like Doubting Thomas, Jesus welcomes you and accepts who you are and where you are with all your doubts and concerns, and then he gives you the strength to get where you need to be. Jesus invited Thomas to touch the mark of the nails, and the wound of the spear in his side. Yes, he invited him to experience his life and death- and the new resurrected life. That is his invitation to you as well. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.