“Witness”

Download a PDF of this sermon here.

 

Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

April 27, 2014

Scripture:  John 20:19-31

 

There was James—a veteran, a recovering alcoholic, a father and grandfather.

There was Ron—once a poor city kid, then a successful prep school athlete, then an addict, then a convict, now clean and sober and struggling to make ends meet.

There was Joann—a grandmother, a survivor of domestic violence, a person committed to recovery.

There was David—the smiling 7-year-old with whom Jesse made friends so quickly.

Our Confirmation class serving food on Boston Common.

On our trip to Boston Friday and Saturday, the confirmands and I had a chance to meet a lot of people with a lot of stories. Some looked like us, and some looked different. Some sounded like us, and some sounded different. Some of their stories resonated with ours, and some were so foreign to our experiences that they were difficult to grasp. But we were all united by our shared humanity, and by the common need of every one of our bodies for nourishment, for sustenance, for food.

It was Joann—the grandmother, the survivor—it was Joann who said to us as she gave us some advice on Friday evening ahead of our day of service on Saturday, “You know, you may be the only copy of the Bible that someone ever sees. The way you live your life, and the way you treat the people around you—that may be the only piece of God’s message that someone ever hears.”

It’s a striking thing to say, a striking way to think of ourselves—as living embodiments of the gospel message. Joann was right, of course. The way we comported ourselves on our mission trip, and the things we do in our ordinary, everyday lives, are the way we bear witness to the God who loves every one of God’s children more fiercely than you and I can imagine.

But it strikes me that it goes the other way, too. With every person we met, with every person we fed, with every story we heard, we learned something of that person’s life, and we caught a glimpse of God’s fingerprints in their story.

And in a way, that kind of witness is what this morning’s scripture reading is all about.

 

This story is the continuation of the one we read last Sunday. You remember how it goes. Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb… She ran to tell the other disciples, and two of them came running to see for themselves. And then while Mary was standing there weeping, a figure showed up who looked at first like the gardener, but then was revealed to be Jesus himself, not dead, but risen. And Mary went back to the disciples again and told them what she had seen and heard.

And then, when it was evening on that day, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” And then the disciples believed. Then they rejoiced that Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!

But Thomas was missing that evening. He might have gone out to stretch his legs, to get some air, to wander the dark streets and try to comprehend the events of the previous week, to be by himself for a little while because it hurt too much to be with anyone else. He might have gone out to run an errand, to bring them supper, to replenish their supplies after those busy and chaotic days. He might have been anywhere.

Photo:  Jlhopgood

Photo:  Jlhopgood

Wherever he was, Thomas wasn’t there in that upper room when the Risen Christ appeared. He wasn’t there when Jesus offered them not harsh words, not anger… not recrimination, not condemnation… not “Where the heck were you?” or “How could you leave me?” or “Now you’re going to get what you deserve!”… not any bitterness at all, but only tenderness and understanding. Thomas wasn’t there to see how Jesus looked at him, to hear the forgiveness in his voice as he offered them his deep and abiding peace. Thomas wasn’t there to witness the wounded hands and side that Jesus showed to the other disciples as they struggled to believe that it was truly he who stood before them. Thomas wasn’t there to feel the stirring of the Holy Spirit as Jesus breathed his breath of life upon them.

Wherever he was, Thomas wasn’t there for any of that. So it was only natural, wasn’t it, for him to want some proof of his own. It was only natural, wasn’t it, for him to want to see what his friends had seen, to hear what they had heard, to feel what they had felt. It was only natural, wasn’t it, for him to want to experience it for himself.

The way we often interpret this story, Thomas was rebuked by Jesus for his doubt, for his skepticism, for his faithlessness, for his unbelief that Jesus could be raised from the dead. But I am not convinced that that’s really what’s going on here.

 

As soon as he had encountered Jesus, as soon as he had seen that wounded yet glorious body, as soon as he had heard that whisper of peace, Thomas opened his lips and let fly the most profound confession of faith in John’s gospel: “My Lord and my God!” These are hardly the words of a doubting, skeptical, faithless, unbelieving man. “My Lord,” as in, the one to whom I pledge my allegiance, the one in whom I place my trust, the one on whom I build my very life. “My God,” as in, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of God, the One sent by God into the world to reconcile the world to Godself. “My Lord and my God!” These hardly sound like the words of a doubting, skeptical, faithless, unbelieving man. No, I am not convinced that a lack of faith in Jesus was Thomas’ problem.

Rather, I think Thomas’ problem was his lack of receptiveness to the testimony of his friends. Thomas gave little credence to the witness of his fellow disciples. He refused outright to believe that their story could be true. “Unless I see for myself,” he insisted, “I will not believe.” Or, in other words, “I won’t take your word for it. Your word is not good enough for me.”[1] If Thomas was rebuked for anything, I think he just might have been rebuked for his lack of faith in the witness of his sisters and brothers.

This is not to say that there is anything particularly wrong with desiring our own encounters with Christ. This is not to say that there is anything particularly wrong with paying deep attention to what we see and hear in our lives of faith. That is not to say that there is anything particularly wrong with taking note of our own experiences and learning from them. But that by itself is not enough.

That by itself—our own experiences by themselves—that is not enough. Simply put, we need one another, and we need one another’s stories. We need to know where others have seen and heard and felt the presence of God.

We need to hear the story that Emily shared last month of her family’s journey with depression and faith.

We need to hear the stories that Marilyn and Cheri and Charlie and Charlene shared last fall of their enduring and evolving relationships with the church.

We need to hear the stories that James and Ron and Joann and David shared with the confirmands, the stories of the struggles and the joys of their lives.

We need to hear the stories that the confirmands shared today of their experience on a mission trip—of what they saw and heard, witnessed and learned, of where God showed up in our midst.

We need one another, and we need one another’s stories. Because sometimes we have gone out to stretch our legs, to get some air, to wander the dark streets and try to comprehend recent events, to be by ourselves for a little while because it hurts too much to be with anyone else. Sometimes we have gone out to run an errand, to get supper, to replenish our supplies after busy and chaotic days. We cannot possibly be there in every upper room on every evening. We cannot possibly be in every place at once. Sometimes we are not there, or otherwise occupied, and God shows up, and we miss it! Or, that is, we would miss it, if not for the witness of our sisters and brothers and parents and children and friends.

 

Photo:  Adam Foster

Photo: Adam Foster

When Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” he wasn’t talking only to Thomas. He wasn’t talking only to the disciples gathered in that upper room. He was talking to everyone who would come after, down through the generations and along through the ages, all the way to today. He was talking to us.

And so it is my hope that this Easter season, this season of encounters with the Risen Christ, will be a season of witness, a season of storytelling, a season of sharing our testimony about where we have glimpsed God. And perhaps we, too, in telling our stories and in receiving the stories of our fellow travelers—perhaps we, too, might hear Jesus’ words of forgiveness and peace. Perhaps we, too, might feel the stirring of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps we, too, might see, and believe, and have life in Jesus’ name.

 

[1] I am indebted to the Rev. Dr. J. Mary Luti for this insight: http://sicutlocutusest.com/2014/04/24/preaching-the-thomas-text-john-2019-31/