2 Pentecost C—4/28/19
Pr. Scott Kramer
I brought with me this morning a special friend. He doesn’t have a name but I’ll call him Teddy. He’s a bear given to me as a gift from my sister-in-law Michelle, who made him out of one of the shirts my dad wore in the last weeks of his life.
This little bear, arms wide open, is a simple way of keeping close to my dad. It’s bittersweet, you know? Both pain and joy.
When we lose someone dear to us, though, keeping close may not be our first response. We might want to put some distance between ourselves and the one whose absence we find hard to bear…maybe through busyness or distractions.
In today’s reading from John, for example, following the death of Jesus, ten of his closest followers are huddled behind locked doors, trying to come to terms with their grief and fear. Thomas was the only one of the group who wasn’t there when Jesus appeared.
Where was Thomas? Maybe he couldn’t bear being around friends who reminded him so much of the love they experienced in the presence of Jesus. When his friends tell him that Jesus is actually alive, Thomas responds as we might—as any normal person in that situation might; he refuses to believe.
It’s important to hear what Thomas says. What he doesn’t say is, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” No, he 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.” Finger in the nail marks? Hand in his side? Ugh! But, it’s easy for Thomas to say because he knows that it will never happen. “When pigs fly” might say it best.
A full week later, however, the disciples gather again but this time Thomas is with them. Not only does he see Jesus, but Jesus takes him at his word: Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe. In other words, touch my wounds. Feel my pain. Come closer, Thomas.
We make too much of Thomas’ doubt; or, we make too much negative about Thomas’ doubt! Yes, Jesus appears to scold him. But, who among us has faith without having some good reason for that faith? Are we better than Jesus’ first disciples, all of whom needed evidence? Thomas’ doubt is normal. Our doubts at times about God and whether God is close—or even real!—are normal.
The deeper lesson of this story for me is Jesus’ invitation to come closer. And how do we come closer to the living Christ? We follow Thomas’ example. We don’t simply say, “Seeing is believing.” Instead, we listen to Thomas’ test: “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.”
Friends, if you and I want to see the real Jesus, the Easter Jesus, the resurrected Christ, Thomas shows us the way. It is looking for the signs of pain and suffering in the brother or sister we encounter every day—be it family, colleague, friend or stranger.
We recognize Christ in the pain and suffering of others, for as we remember from Matthew’s gospel, I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.‘ Or, as in the story of the Good Samaritan: The best way to know the fuller story of the brother or sister is to know their pain. And the only way to know that pain is: Come closer. Come Closer.
Face to face, nose to nose, seems close enough—but according to Jesus, that’s only a start: Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.
Last week, we had the unopened bag of steer manure as a sermon illustration. This week, the bag is open, and some of us today may plunge our bare hands into the cow poop! That may make some folks uncomfortable.
But nothing we do with this bag of steer manure could be as uncomfortable as what Jesus invited Thomas to do. Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.
His message then, and now, is this: If you’re feeling uncomfortable or afraid, get closer to what or whom you doubt or fear. That goes against all our instincts, right? “Fight or flight” is our animal response. But Jesus teaches, “Don’t be afraid. Come closer.” In the midst of your fear, come closer. Experience for yourself the resurrected Christ by knowing the brother or sister in need, or, the brother or sister you fear.
Thomas demanded more than the other disciples. They believed because they saw Jesus. Thomas believed because he not only saw but touched the wounds of Christ. That’s a deeper faith.
In this we have an example to follow. Think about those in your life whom you don’t like, or whom you don’t trust. When we are afraid, we tend not to trust those we don’t know, or, whose stories are very different from our own. This goes a long way toward explaining the sins of our country, the sins of our hearts, the sins of our times, the sins even of Christ’s own church: racism and white supremacy, sexism and misogyny, hostility toward immigrants, xenophobia, and homophobia. Too much fear. Too much distance. And yet, it’s very often in the one a person fears…that Christ appears.
To risk getting close to what is uncomfortable is hard. It’s uncomfortable! It’s hard, in part, because any of us, caught up in our own pain, may at times feel like that’s enough. It’s all I have bandwidth for. It’s all I can bear.
Here again Thomas can be our teacher. The life of faith is not a race. Thomas took time away. To put distance between ourselves and those we love, those whom we fear, those who cause us pain, painful situations—for a time, that might be just what is needed.
We all have our own journey. The invitation to come closer to our own and others’ pain may start with something as simple as a Teddy bear, made out of Daddy’s shirt.
But eventually, to see Jesus, we return–to life, to community–in response to the crucified and risen one who says: Come closer. Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe…
Believe!…that Christ has died. Believe!…that Christ has risen. And then, especially when we dare to touch the wounds of the brother or sister in pain or in need, it may dawn on us thatChrist…has come again!