The Uprising of Fellowship

John 20:19-31

Resurrection changes everything. As we follow the Risen Christ, we anticipate the power of life rising up within us, between us, and around us. During this Easter season, we will be in a series called The Uprising. As we gather together each week and then go back out into the world, we will experience an uprising of fellowship, discipleship, worship, partnership, and stewardship. In Christ and with Christ, we live in the power of life, facing the suffering of the world head on, and proclaiming new life for all. Resurrection happens. 

Easter lasts for six Sundays but there are really not six Sunday’s worth of stories from the gospels about what happens after Jesus’ resurrection, and so in this season we will have the opportunity to explore some other texts together. The gospel of John has the most post-resurrection material and so for two weeks we will experience those stories together. John is a very different gospel from Matthew and Mark and Luke, which all share a lot of material. John, not so much. John is not linear or technical or literal. John points out the patterns and cycles in our lives. He encourages us to embrace symbolism and get a little bit more comfortable with mystery, because the divine life is something to be experienced, even if it’s not fully understood. John calls us forward, always on a spiritual quest, fulfilled and yet always seeking more. One of our UCC forebears, the Pilgrim John Robinson, said, “I am persuaded that the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth of out his Holy Word.” Jesus is that word, and as we wrap up this particular series, let’s open our minds to the light and truth that continue to break forth in the world. This is from the gospel of John chapter 20, verses 19 through 31. Let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and wisdom of God. 

“When it was evening on that day [Resurrection Sunday], the first day of the week, and the doors were locked where the disciples were, 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 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 that are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

These things have been written so that you may believe, or as I often tell you, my preferred translation is “to trust.” Trust is the key response all the way through John’s gospel. The truth is that the loving nature of God has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ and our response is to that revelation is to trust. To trust means to have an active personal allegiance to Jesus and to be ready for whatever he’s going to do. Faith or belief or trust is never a noun in the Gospel of John. It’s never a thing that we have or possess. It’s always a verb. It’s always something we do. The revelation is that Jesus is fully one with God and the invitation is for us to put our faith in Jesus. To trust.

So, let’s talk about Thomas. The one who says he will not believe. He will not trust. He is often referred to as Doubting Thomas, but I don’t like that very much. This guy usually gets a bad rap, but I don’t really think that’s fair.  I want us to let him out into the light a little today. Let’s look at the story. First, he wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus appears to them. We don’t know why, but there’s no reason to assume anything negative about him because of it. It’s just John’s way of setting up the story. 

Mary goes to the garden on Resurrection Sunday morning. Jesus appears to her, and she returns to the disciples and gives her testimony, “I have seen the Lord. Later that evening, Jesus appears to many more of them, but not Thomas. When the whole community is together again, including Thomas, the other disciples say to him, “We have seen the Lord.” Notice this is exactly the same testimony that Mary gave. And if Thomas was a doubter, he might say, “No you didn’t.” Or, “It’s not true.” But that’s not what he says. What he says is, “If I don’t experience it for myself, I will not trust.” Remember what believe means in this gospel: to enter into full relationship with Jesus. 

But Thomas doesn’t give up. He doesn’t quit going to church because he didn’t have the same experience that someone else did. He keeps meeting with the rest of the disciples. Then a week later, Jesus shows up again, just like he did before. He greets Thomas with, “Peace be with you” just like he did with the others. He shows Thomas his wounds. Just like he did with the others. Jesus gives Thomas exactly what he needs. Just like he did with the others. And, contrary to how we often read what happens next, Jesus does not shame Thomas. 

In fact, Jesus does NOT tell Thomas to stop doubting. There’s a totally different Greek word for “doubt.” Literally what Jesus says here is, “Be not untrusting, instead be trusting.” Jesus invites Thomas into a state of being: trusting rather than mistrusting. Jesus asks Thomas to be, and not just do to. This is important because, again, trusting in John is not about cognitive processing. It’s about relationship. Doubt and uncertainty are a natural part of our spiritual journey. But this is about relationship, and there’s no such thing as being halfway committed in a relationship. Jesus is inviting Thomas to come into the full relationship that is now possible with God through the resurrected and soon to be ascended Jesus. Thomas wholeheartedly accepts this invitation, as demonstrated by his declaration, “My Lord and my God!” 

And then, in this next phrase, Jesus steps outside of the story. You know in movies or TV or live theater sometimes the actress talks to the audience? It’s called breaking the fourth wall. That’s basically what happens when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not yet seen and still believe.” He’s not just talking to Thomas anymore. Jesus breaks the fourth wall and says to the original audience and to us, “You don’t have to see me in the flesh in order to enter into relationship with me.” That’s what the final paragraph is about too. 

The testimony of Jesus, what we read not only in this Gospel, but in all the rest of the scriptures, opens the door for us. But the lesson of Thomas, and indeed the rest of the disciples, is that belief is personal. Someone else’s testimony gets us started, but we can’t have a vicarious relationship with Jesus. Young people, you don’t have a relationship with Jesus through your parents. You make your own choice to trust and your relationship with Jesus is unique and totally your own. Jesus gives Mary Magdalene, and the disciples, and Thomas, exactly what they need to have a personal relationship with Jesus. 

At this moment we are not talking about the redemption of individual sins that is often touted in American Christianity. The good news of the gospel is very personal, but it is not individual. Salvation is universal, and relationship with God is always personal. Jesus came to save the whole world and to make it possible for every single person to share in the divine life. All the stories in the gospels, all the testimonies of all the Christian communities throughout all the ages are stories designed to point us toward the reality of a personal encounter with the divine life here and now, without ever having to see Jesus in the flesh. God is love, and we can experience that love on a very personal level.

Which is what we celebrate as we come to the table this morning. We come as a community, and Jesus shows up in our community. One of the great mysteries of our faith is that the real presence of Christ is here at this table. Can I explain it to you? I cannot. But we trust it. The Risen Christ is here among us as we eat and drink together. Which is why our ancestors in the faith have insisted for hundreds of years, this is the joyful feast of the people of God. People of all genders, all ages, and all races—people with every type of body—come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and gather about Christ’s table.

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