19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”
26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.
Christians Don’t Play Solitaire
Let us Pray,
God of new life,
You surprise us
Behind locked doors
Outside of tombs
In the deepest parts of our being
And yet, it is always that
As Easters always do, surprise us again today
With your love
With your grace
With those scars that show us the extent
Of that love and grace
In the name of the same loving, graceful, scarred one
Jesus the Christ
This sermon took a decidedly different twist on my flight from Chicago to San Francisco.
As preachers know, a sermon is never done until it’s preached. Polished, full of witty anecdotes, lovingly crafted, clearly gospel, that sermon that I had prepared was ready to go, ready to move, ready to preach.
It’s long gone.
Instead, we have this.
Because of an encounter.
On the flight from Chicago to San Francisco, I sat next to a lovely, if not nosy, elderly couple.
Visiting from New Delhi, the man would grab my hand every time the plane hit turbulence. “What was that?” he’d exclaim. Loudly. Quite loudly.
“Turbulence,” was my whisper.
And then I began to play Solitaire on my computer. He decided he would also play. With jabs of the finger he’d point to where he thought I should lay digital cards. And every time I made a move that he thought was unwise he’d simply say, “Undo. Undo. Undo…” repeating it ad nauseum until I was obliged to undo my previous move simply to placate him.
But he caught a look at my reading material. For long trips I usually carry one non-controversial book with me that I can break out so as not to draw attention. A James Patterson novel, or perhaps Newsweek.
But he saw my books. My real books. My theology books.
My hobby right now is studying theism, atheism, and the interface of belief. A very appropriate hobby for today’s gospel reading, yes?
But he saw my books, and specifically, the one where Tina Beattie, a feminist Catholic scholar, dissects religion with provocatively titled chapters and says to me, “I am a doctor. I am Hindu. Tell me, please, in one sentence, what is religion?”
Do I quote William James, the psychologist of the 19th Century who says that religion is the “feelings, acts, and experiences of individual (people) in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”?
Or do I go with the definition that most social anthropologists have agreed upon, that religion connotes the actions and expressions that accompany a system of belief?
Or do I…what?
Thomas. Please tell us in one sentence what religion is.
Peter. Mary. James. John. Please tell us, in one sentence, what religion is.
Is it the profession of our childhood self who sang, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus in the morning, Jesus at the noontime. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus when the sun goes down…”
Is it the profession of our catechetical self who recites, along with the rest of the church, “I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth…”
Is it the profession of our seminary self who, in quoting Paul Tillich, said, “God is the source and ground of all being…”
Today we hear of Thomas, some people refer to him as “Doubting Thomas,” but I’ll just stick with Thomas. After all, who knows what history will remember about me…if anything. So perhaps we’d do well to forget some parts of other’s histories as well.
And here Thomas is, out on the streets, running errands or doing whatever he was doing at that time, and while he’s out, Jesus makes a house call.
And the disciples see it.
But Thomas doesn’t.
And so when he comes back and doubts what the others have said, I think he has good reason to.
First of all, who would have thought that Jesus would show up without everyone present? Or, at the very least, in spotting that Thomas was not there, Jesus would have waited around until he arrived, probably saying, “Good, now that we’re all here, peace be with you…”
Secondly, what reason did he have to believe that Jesus had shown up again? Look at these disciples. Had they changed the way they were behaving? Had they left that upper room? Jesus shows up, and do they burst out the doors, do they start living in the confidence of a God who keeps promises?
They stay locked. Hidden. Unchanged. Quietly excited, but otherwise the same.
What’s Thomas supposed to think?
And then Jesus pulls a surprise, “Peace be with you…”
And it all comes back around. Touch the hands. Feel the side. Hear the words.
That sweet man on the plane asked a difficult question. “Tell me, in one sentence, what religion is.”
But I couldn’t. As someone who preaches, writes, lectures, pontificates to the boredom of many on the faith, I couldn’t answer his question.
And I mostly couldn’t answer his question because, well, words won’t do.
For Thomas, words wouldn’t do.
For you, Manda, words won’t do. They’ve never been enough. Even the words of the piece of paper that you receive today, “Called to…” for as much as we celebrate that fact, it does not change the matter that you have been doing ministry all this time, and will continue to do ministry.
Because for the Christian, the faith is not packed into words. In fact, I think we’ve relied a little too heavily on dogma for a while.
For the Christian, religion is not the faith practiced in the silence of some upper room, or practiced in some solitary moment. For the Christian, the faith is intimately connected with hands and sides, with feet and heads, with encounters that happen out in the world, not behind closed doors.
For the Christian, religion is the cry of Martin Luther King, Jr. that on the night in which he was betrayed, spoke clearly about being on the mountain top and seeing the Promised Land, the land of dreams where children, black and white, would be learn together.
But he couldn’t just tell people about some abstract reality. He had to glimpse it, first. He had to touch it, first. He had to feel the scars to know they could be healed. Indeed, the preacher merely reflects the faith, she does not create it out of nothing…
For the Christian, religion is the cry of the mother who has lost her son, as nurses, pastors, doctors, family, friends, lift her up because she can no longer hold herself up. And not with platitudes or empty words, but by entering deeply into those scars for her sake…for the world’s sake.
For the Christian, religion is the passing of food from one to another, stretching out in a long line, as we say to the other, “I have eaten. My desire is for you to eat, too. The God I profess longs for all to have enough…”
For the Christian, religion is holding a newborn in your arms as you proclaim it to be what God has already said it is: a new creation. And you wash it, and bless it, and make promises to and for it, promises that make clear that it is to be light for a world of shadows, salt for a world of blandness, a justice bearer for a world of injustices.
Manda, today you take up a mantle around your shoulders. The stole. An interesting piece of cloth, yes?
A yoke. A yoke that you extend to those you meet. A mantle that yokes you to their lives as you work and walk with them to figure out what it means to live as a Christian in this world. What it means to touch hands and sides. What it means to match belief with practice, profession with the glimpse of the kingdom that we get every time we see the naked clothed, the mourning comforted, the hungry fed, and the lonely surrounded by friends.
A yoke that is the visible sign that, wherever we are, even behind locked doors, Jesus is constantly bursting on the scene to create community, bursting on the scene to show just how far he’ll go to show God’s love for humanity.
You know, on the flight out here, it was funny, that sight. Funny to watch two people play Solitaire. Solitaire, after all, is a game for one.
But the Christian life is not solitary. It’s always yoked. Yoked one to another. Yoked not in words, but in walking. Yoked not merely in belief, but in behavior.
Christ creates communities of more than words; communities of action. The stoles remind us of that. Wounded hands remind us of that. Wounded sides remind us of that. And then, we share it with wounded hands, and with wounded sides, and…if we have to…with words.
And what do I think I should have said to that man?
“Please, tell me in one sentence, what is religion?”
“I’m sorry sir. I can’t tell you. Words won’t do it. But I can show you. Let’s find some scarred hands, some wounded sides. I imagine we won’t have to look far. Perhaps you have some? I know I do..And then, then you can feel the story of salvation enough to say, ‘My Lord, my God”
This is the holy trust put upon you today, the ministry that Christ invites you to Manda: To yoke yourself with others, to touch hands and sides, because in doing so we clearly see our Lord, our God.
And it cannot happen behind closed doors. It cannot happen in upper rooms. It can only happen on planes, trains, in malls, in fields, in homes, in clubs, and yes, in the communities like Elim Lutheran Church. Amen.