In Community, Jesus comes to strengthen us
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey
at the Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA, April 28, 2019
The Second Sunday of Easter, John 20:19-31
Luke 24:1-12 (NRSV): When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, 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. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Happy Easter! When I was growing up, it always seemed that it would rain on Good Friday, and then turn to bright sunshine on Easter Day, complete with a beautiful rainbow. It is so wonderful to see all the flowers in the church and all the flowering plants and trees all around us, joining in the joy of the resurrection, a flourish of color and joy and celebration.
Soon, however, those flowering plants will need to strengthen their roots. Without a deep root system, those flowers and plants will wither and die. With deep roots, however, they will be strong in the summer, and prepared for winter. And when the spring comes again, they will have even more buds that will flower and flourish.
Jesus knows that this is true for his disciples as well. We all need deep roots so that we can thrive and flourish in all the seasons of our lives. This was true for his first disciples, and is true for us, Jesus’ disciples of today. Jesus comes to us with joy and peace to overcome our fears. Then Jesus sends us on our mission and empowers us for that mission with the Holy Spirit. Jesus comes to us to strengthen us.
Jesus starts this sending and strengthening with his first disciples. He appears to them on the evening of the first Easter Sunday when most of them were together. Almost immediately, he sends them on their mission. “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Then he equips them for this ministry—he breathes on them and empowers them with his Holy Spirit. But that is not the end of Jesus’ relationship with the apostles. A week later, Jesus also came to Thomas and strengthened Thomas as well.
I often wonder about Thomas. Why wasn’t he there with the other disciples on the first Sunday? Was he afraid? Where was he? And I wonder why he was still with them a week later. Can you imagine this group of people together along with Thomas for that whole week? All of the disciples are overjoyed with their experience of the risen Jesus, but there is Thomas still disbelieving that the story is true. What a strange relationship they all must have had together. And yet, Thomas was still there, and the apostles must have continued to embrace him.
So in this community of empowered disciples, there were still doubts, and still room to grow. I think this is true of our Christian community as well. I’m not saying that we want to create doubts or that we should be proud of our doubts, or rest in our doubts, but doubts are a normal part of the process that cares deeply about what is true and what is truly from God. We go through our own doubts because we care enough to want to be sure that this is all true.
Sometimes we seek logical clarity and reliability. Thomas says “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.” Thomas wants to test and know that Jesus truly is alive. Like Thomas, we want to test our beliefs, to truly see and feel God at work in our own lives. This is a healthy kind of engagement, I think. These kinds of doubts that drive us deeper are far better than indifference, where we could care less if Jesus is true or not.
Indeed, this kind of engagement can result in the strengthening of our faith. The more we dig deeper, seeking answers to the tough questions, the deeper we send our roots, building a stronger, healthier and more vibrant faith. Note that Thomas is not an enemy of Jesus. Thomas is not an atheist, in fact Thomas is an apostle. And yet, he still had his doubts, his lack of faith, his lack of trust in Jesus. Even though he did not believe, he stayed with the community of disciples. Though Thomas may have been stuck, I don’t think he let go.
Of course, proof is not the only thing we need in our relationship with Jesus. Sometimes our hesitation with God doesn’t come from lack of proof or logic or reasoning or testing. Sometimes our doubts are there because we just don’t know how to connect with God. We sort of know about God, but we may not have ever had the sense of God’s closeness to us or his personal connection with us. Part of us may share in the color of the flowers, but we haven’t yet put down deep roots. In those cases, we don’t see the blessings we would find if we sent our roots deeper.
So how did Jesus respond to Thomas? Did he strike him down? No. Did Jesus refuse to listen to Thomas’ prayer because of his doubts? No. Did the apostles push him away because he still was not convinced? No. Jesus responded to Thomas by coming to him. Jesus responded to Thomas’ questions, Jesus strengthened Thomas’ faith. Jesus came to him through the community of disciples, and Jesus came to Thomas when he was there with the disciples. Disconnected from that community, Thomas missed the blessings of Jesus’ presence. But when Thomas was connected to the disciples, he was there to see Jesus again.
So Jesus came to the disciples, and specifically spoke with Thomas. Here are my hands and my side, touch me and see. Do not be faithless but faithful. Do not disbelieve but believe. Jesus specifically engages Thomas and seeks to bless him, most especially in the community of believers. In community, Jesus comes to strengthen us. So how does Thomas respond? Does Thomas begin his scientific study to see if Jesus is truly risen from the dead? Actually, it seems that Thomas doesn’t touch Jesus at all. But Thomas says to Jesus “my Lord and my God!”
Something happens when we start taking Jesus seriously enough to doubt. Something happens when we bring those doubts to God and when we bring those doubts to the Christian community, to dig deeper to understand. In that community, and in that searching with God, Jesus comes to us. In community, Jesus comes to us to strengthen us. And in that encounter with Jesus, our faith is strengthened and our roots go deeper.
What about us, what can we do to send our roots deeper? Part of strengthening our roots has to do with seeking God regularly in prayer. Part of strengthening our roots has to do with a deeper engagement in this Christian community. This can be a place like that community of disciples that welcomed Thomas. Together, we can dig deeper with God and send our roots deeper in the process.
We have numerous Bible Studies and Sunday School classes. We learn and grow as parents and as friends. We encounter God when we pray together. Our Discipleship Groups are places where we can ask the tough questions and together seek to understand and encounter God together. We send our roots deep and we help others deepen their roots when we help lead Sunday School with our children, or youth or adults. We deepen our faith as we walk with others and help them find strength from God. We encounter God together in worship together, in song and prayer and scripture and sacraments. And we engage with Jesus’ commission to us, sent into the world as the Father sent Jesus.
This is a time of great celebration in the life of this parish. God has blessed us richly, and the joy of the flowers expresses our joy in the Lord in this place. Now, let’s send our roots deeper, so that we will be strong in all the seasons of our life. And when the spring comes again, we will have more buds to flower and flourish and share more of that joy with others.