A Decision of Faith

April 15, 2012

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
Sermon given while serving as seminarian

First Sunday of Easter – Year B (RCL) – Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31

On Labor Day morning eight years ago I got a phone call from my parents telling me that my older sister Kathy had been taken to the hospital, and that they were going there to check on her. It didn’t sound dire at the time, so I was shocked when I received another call just twenty minutes later, telling me that she had died.

My first need was to find out what had caused the death of my 41 year old sister – the sister I had just seen a few weeks earlier at my parent’s house as we gathered to celebrate our nephew’s birthday. What was a “pulmonary embolism”? … I needed to know.

Next, I needed to DO something. So, I offered to call my twin sister, Nancy, to tell her of Kathy’s death. This was the first time I delivered the unwelcome and shocking news to another person, but not the last. I began to call other relatives and family friends, telling each what little I knew…

In hindsight, I realized that I needed to say the words “Kathy has died.” It was in the repeated telling that I came to believe that it was true.

Over the course of the day, people started gathering at my parent’s home in Houston. My younger sister and I headed to the house. My brother made the three-hour drive from San Antonio. Nancy quickly packed a few things and caught a flight from Georgia. My aunts, uncles and cousins began rearranging their lives so they could come to Houston for the next few days…

And so, we gathered together.

It wasn’t necessary for me to see my sister’s lifeless body to know that she was dead. When the whole family was gathered and she was not among us, I knew. Her beautiful smile and joyful energy would have filled the room if she had been with us. So, her absence was all the evidence I needed to know that she had in fact died.

How strange it must have been, too, for the disciples to gather together that first Sunday after the crucifixion, knowing that Jesus had been killed and would not be with them. Perhaps this is precisely why Thomas wasn’t there. Perhaps it would have been too difficult for him to gather with others, knowing that Jesus would not be there. This would have made the reality of Jesus death all too real – undeniable any longer. Perhaps this was too much for Thomas to bear, so, while the others gathered, he was not with them.

I can imagine that Thomas may have been trying to remember the conversation Jesus had with him and the other disciples just a short time before. In chapter 14 of John’s Gospel, we hear Jesus telling them that he was going away to prepare a place for them. He assured them that they knew the place where he was going. Thomas said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

And so now, Thomas might have been trying to figure out what Jesus’ reply meant when he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life… if you know me, you will know my Father also.”

He went on to explain that in a short while, the world would not see him or know him, but that God would send a Helper, an Advocate, which is the Holy Spirit. And through the Holy Spirit God would abide in each of them.

Jesus said: “Those who keep my commandments love me and love God and I will reveal myself to them… The Holy Spirit will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you… ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.’” Jesus then explains that he is telling them these things so that when they actually happen, the disciples will remember his words and believe.

And now, just as Jesus foretold, so much has happened. Thomas is off somewhere, trying to piece all of this together. Trying to grasp all of this on his own.

The other disciples, like my family after my sister’s death, gathered together. They were no less distressed than Thomas, and no less frightened – but they were together.

And from today’s reading, the Gospel says “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

We always point to Thomas as our “fall guy” for not believing without seeing, but this passage reveals that the same was true for all the disciples. Jesus stood among them and said “Peace be with you” but there was no reaction, no recognition. Jesus then showed the disciples his hands and side, and it was only after this evidence that they rejoiced and SAW the Lord.

Yeah – Thomas gets a bum rap!

But you see, something has changed – no one is able to immediately recognize Jesus in the Risen form. We saw it in the preceding passage, read last Sunday, when Mary Magdalene thought she was talking with a gardener. She didn’t recognize that it was Jesus until she heard him say her name.

And in the story after today’s reading, Jesus is on the shore and Peter and others don’t realize that it is Jesus. They only recognize him after he tells them to cast their net on the other side of the boat and they get a catch too big to haul in – a déjà vu from early times together with Jesus.

And now, in today’s reading – the disciples have seen his hands and side and now recognize him.

In his commentary on John, Fred Craddock, a former Professor of Preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology, explains that today’s passage and the preceding one combined serve to demonstrate the various ways we come to our faith

  • The Beloved Disciple believed as soon as he saw the empty tomb 
  • Mary Magdalene heard the Word of Jesus, heard the shepherd’s voice saying her name
  • The disciples, without Thomas there, believed because they saw Jesus
  • While Thomas required physical contact
  • Or as Jesus says, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”

Through these examples, we see that Faith is not the same experience for all people, and that that’s okay. No single way is made normative for all (1) – we each come to our understanding of Christ in our own way and in our own time.

And I love this quote from Craddock – “For some, faith is born and grows as quietly as a child sleeping on grandmother’s lap. For others, faith is a lifetime of wrestling with the angel.”(2) And finally he explains that “Faith is not in this Gospel a decision once and for all, but a decision anew in every situation.” (3)

The DECISION of Faith. “A decision anew in every situation.”

This idea is similar to one used by the familiar twelve-step programs that help people overcome their addictions. A significant reason for the program’s effectiveness is that it is a daily decision that is made. You decide to overcome your addiction for one day at a time. You only have to commit to today.

I think Faith can be like that.

Another important element of the twelve-step program is that it’s done in community. You don’t accomplish it by yourself. You have advocates, helpers, in your midst that know what you are going through and provide support to you. That is what our Faith community is about as well – to rejoice together in times of celebration, and to also support one another through difficult times.

We see this affirmed in the Gospel lesson. Although Jesus could have appeared to Thomas individually, instead, it wasn’t until everyone was gathered together again the following week. Jesus again came and stood among them, and this time Thomas was with them.

Yet even on that day, Thomas still wasn’t sure. He was unbelieving. And, Jesus took the time to reveal himself to Thomas, offering him the chance to put his finger in the marks of Jesus hands, and to place his hand in Jesus’ scarred side. We aren’t told if Thomas actually touched Jesus, but we do know that Thomas came to believe when he exclaimed: “My Lord and my God!”

Like Thomas, there may be days when we don’t feel like we fully believe. Perhaps something has happened to shake our faith – something has troubled us in our life or in this world that has made us question God. We don’t recognize Jesus as we once did.

It’s important that even on these days, particularly on these days, that we come and be in community with others. That we gather together. We are here for one another – praying and believing on one another’s behalf – not all in the same way or believing at the same level – but by our presence and participation, we are making a faith decision.

In each situation we face, we can decide how our faith, if our faith, plays a role.

And just as with the disciples who were standing before Jesus, having shown their belief and recognition of him, we too show our belief and recognition. We, like them, receive the breath that fills us with the Holy Spirit – our advocate and helper.

In the sacrament of Holy Communion which we will share together in a few minutes, the bread and wine are sanctified by this same Holy Spirit. It is this Holy Spirit that has filled us. That nourishes us. It is this Holy Spirit that teaches us everything and reminds us of all that Jesus has said.

This Holy Spirit is our Helper, and helps us live into the daily decision to follow Christ; to recognize Jesus as the Risen Lord; to empower us to live as he would have us live – which is to love one another. That is our call to action as Christians. That is what it means to “have life in his name”.

It is by living this life that we are able to navigate the confusion, anger and fear that can occur during the course of our lives. These difficult moments may be caused by something as severe as the sudden death of a loved one or by witnessing the prolonged suffering of someone afflicted with illness or dementia. It can arise when we see the unfairness and injustice in our communities, our nation and in the world at large.

For many, it’s the struggle to overcome addiction or some other condition of imbalance. Or perhaps it is caused by the stresses of daily life, or by holding onto grievances with others instead of letting them go.

We bring all these things with us to the altar and lay them down before God.

We do it together – whether we came to our faith easily, or whether it’s a daily struggle. No matter where we find ourselves this particular day, we are assured by the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ, that he is in the midst of us. He cares for us. And in all of these conditions he breathes new life into us, offering himself, and saying “Peace be with you.”

NOTES:

Fred B. Craddock, John, Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press (1982), 142 (1 & 2); 144 (3).

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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