Apr 7, 2018

Thomas and Mercy

"Believe . . . My Lord and my God!"

John 20: 19-31

Would there be a way we could compress the entire Gospel into one small sound bite?  We’re very familiar with such small abbreviated phrases. We see them in marketing for businesses all the time.  Television commercials are famous for them: “Have it your way,” “Pizza, pizza,” “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”  Such brief lines imbed themselves in us and quickly convey the purpose of that product. 

Can we do this with the Gospel?  In fact, our passage from the Gospel of John offers us a wonderful “sound bite” today:  My Lord and my God.”  The words of Thomas when he encounters and touches the risen Christ summarize not only this Easter season but where the Lord needs to be in our lives as well; he is our “Lord and God” and thereby the center of our faith lives and our life in general.

This Sunday and throughout the Easter season, we hear of startling events for the Apostles which forever would change their lives. The risen Lord Jesus suddenly and unexpectedly appears to the frightened and confused group hiding in fear with doors securely locked.  They dread what might happen due to their known association with Jesus and find themselves paralyzed as to their next step.  They will never forget their betrayal of Jesus three days before and all of them, save John, cowardly ran away from him in his greatest need.  What could be more troubling?

In the middle of this, Jesus appears to them, not as a spirit or an hallucination but in his risen, physical body, eternally alive again! We can only imagine the reaction of the disciples and the energy that must have filled that room. John writes: “The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” I would guess that was an understatement. In the process, Jesus addresses their fear and by association, their earlier betrayal not with judgement but with: “Shalom,” “Peace be with you.”

What more convincing experience could they have had that would convict them of the purpose of Jesus’ death than to see him raised from that suffering and death to glory before God.  That in his dying and rising, Jesus has forever unlocked the door of finality in death to eternity of life with God. 

So, he breathes and shares his spirit and commissions them to be ambassadors of himself and the forgiveness of sins.  He commissions them to go and offer his forgiveness and mercy to all who hear their message of peace. 

Yet, our “sound bite” messenger was absent for this experience and once told, he states his need for physical proof: “Unless I see the mark of the nails  . . and put my finger into the nail marks and my hand into his side, I will not believe.” In essence Thomas is telling them, I want the same as you have just experienced.  You wouldn’t believe it either unless you saw him. The story is just too fantastic.  Jesus well knew their need for proof.

I have often felt our famed “doubting Thomas” was given an unfair label. Who among us might not react the same way as he did when hearing from his brothers that Jesus was alive again and had appeared to them?  "Thomas' doubts their claims, sort of, but like them needed physical confirmation that Jesus had indeed risen.  It's not that their story was beyond belief but Thomas wanted to touch and see as they did. Thomas, I feel, wanted to believe with all his heart but he needed something to hang on, not just words as convincing as they may have sounded.

Their lives were grounded in the real, tangible world so to make the stretch from what they knew, even in the place of Jesus' miracles, to this realm of the spirit, let alone fantastic beliefs that Jesus' dead corpse had been raised and transformed in this form was an enormous stretch.  Yet, through our physical senses we come to know how things are and what they are so these physical resurrection encounters were essential.

Remember, these men were not old and filled with the wisdom of experience.  They were young men, likely in their late teens or 20's, perhaps 30's at the most, and by nature inquisitive, impulsive, filled with idealism and energy but also skeptical. One source commented that Simon Peter was likely in his early 20's, not this old bearded man we see in artistic renderings. They were fishermen, working long in hard labor, other trades, tax collector and such. The Gospels relate their physical prowess: they ran, they pulled nets, they climbed mountains, they rowed a boat on stormy seas, they endured in the face of threat, they walked distances in the hot sun and made their way through crowds. Such things are not for the physically weak or aging.

So, Jesus comes to them not in judgement but in divine mercy: "Shalom."  He grants them what they need, a divine boost of grace through his Spirit, then gives them physical proof of his risen form.  We can only imagine what the energy in that room must have been like when Jesus, despite the locked doors, appeared to them and spoke and ate with them.  Speechless with wonder and awe might be an understatement.

The next week Jesus comes again in Shalom and offers Thomas the same proof that he had given to the others. Thomas proclaims of Jesus: "My Lord and my God!" Thomas', the skeptic, words are timely for us and all succeeding generations of Christians:  "Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed." If we truly believe that Christ is raised from the dead then the whole of our Easter season and our faith in total makes sense.  We can stand confident that the world will not overtake us; that God has all things in control and that Christ is: “Our Lord and God.”

What did Jesus do for them in his risen presence?  He forever changed them, made them see their lives in a new way and reminded them that faith in him is transformative.  He took away their fear, reassured them of his constant mercy, he made them less selfish as we hear in the first reading from Acts as the believers cared for the needs of others.  He brings them into a fellowship, a community of forgiveness and loving support.  He promises that if they remain with him, he will remain with them and will feed them and guide them in all things.  He will give meaning and purpose to their lives. 

In short, as Jesus’ breathed on the disciples, so that same breath falls on us: his Spirit in the body of believers.  He extends mercy, his compassion and in that way, his very nature to us.  And if we want to find the risen Lord, we do so through extending mercy and forgiveness to others.  

Because he is Lord and God faith in him and life in his Church, his Body, is an open door for all.  Here we encounter that same risen Lord who always stand with us. 

God of everlasting mercy, 
who in the very recurrence of the paschal feast
kindle the faith of the people you have made your own,
increase, we pray, the grace you have bestowed,
that all may grasp and rightly understand
in what font they have been washed, 
by whose Spirit they have been reborn,
by whose Blood they have been redeemed. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God for ever and ever.