Late to the Party

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Tue, 04/25/2017 - 12:45pm

John 20:24-31, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, April 23, 2017, Easter 2 

            Thomas doesn’t have any more doubt than anyone else; he just hasn’t had the same experience that the others have had. When Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty last week, it didn’t inspire faith. When she first saw Jesus she thought he must be the gardener, because Jesus was dead. Peter and John looked into the empty tomb and it didn’t occur to them that Jesus was alive. On Easter Sunday evening some of Jesus’ followers—fearful and dejected—were meeting behind locked doors when the risen Jesus passed right through the walls and said “Shalom!” As if to prove it was really him, Jesus showed them his wounded hands and side. Only then did the disciples rejoice, the text said, because they had finally seen the Lord.

            Sometime later, Thomas showed up, but the episode with Jesus was over. We have no idea where Thomas was, and it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the other disciples had an experience that Thomas didn’t have. The others say, “You won’t believe what happened! We saw Jesus!” Thomas didn’t believe that it had really happened to them. Would you believe me if I told you that when I was standing out by the Ocean View Pavilion on Easter Sunday morning at sunrise I saw Jesus walking toward me on the water? You might just roll your eyes. You might think I kind of imagined it with my wishful spiritual imagination. The male disciples hadn’t believed Mary when she told them she had seen Jesus in the garden beside the tomb; they just stayed afraid and hunkered down until Jesus actually showed up.

            Not long ago I was praying with someone, holding hands, and asking God to speak to the person or give some sign for direction about an important decision. Suddenly the other person jerked and said “Oh, oh, oh, he talked to me! I heard his voice in my head,” reporting the exact words spoken. So…would you believe that person? Or would you say, “it’s all in his head”? I myself had to make a judgment, choosing to believe the other person’s report of an encounter with God.

            When Thomas hears that Jesus is not dead and has appeared alive to the others, he thinks, “Yeah, right. I saw the nails go into his hands. I saw them thrust a sword into his side. He didn’t come down from that cross any way but dead. Maybe you saw a ghost or a spirit, but I’m not going to believe Jesus is alive until I can put my own finger in the nail-hole and thrust my hand where the sword went.”

            Thomas speaks for all of us who have not had the experience that other people have had of Jesus—or claim to have had. When I say that Thomas was “late to the party” I don’t mean that he’s slow or dumb, but that he was a late adopter through no fault of his own. By the time he got to the party, Jesus was gone. Thomas is a stand-in for the reader of the gospel—or, in John’s day, the listener, because most people could not read and would have heard the story read out loud. The reader has no direct physical or visual experience of Jesus, so he’s left in the same position as Thomas. Can I believe these people who say they have had this experience?

            Thomas, though, gets his own experience soon enough. I think this is a story of Jesus’ compassion and love for Thomas. If Thomas says he can’t believe without physical contact with Jesus, Jesus accommodates him and grants his wish. But we don’t get our wish. Jesus does not show up for us nowadays, at least not in the same physical way. But back when Jesus appeared to Thomas, he was talking about us: “Thomas, did you come to faith in me because you saw me? Those who do not see me and still come to faith in me receive a special blessing because it’s harder for them.”

            John wrote his gospel 40-50 years after Jesus died and rose, so he is writing for the second or third generation who did not get to see Jesus in person. Most of the eyewitnesses were dead already. The question the church was facing was whether these later generations who had not even had a chance to see someone who had seen Jesus could really believe. Jesus’ answer here is “Yes, they can believe, they will believe.” And John says in verse 31, the very last sentence in the first edition of the book, “These signs have been written down so that you who have not seen Jesus for yourself will come to believe (to have faith) that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God—and that through believing you may have life in his name.” The goal is to become fully alive yourself as Jesus was alive, to have eternal life, the life of the kingdom which you share with the risen Christ.

            John’s goal is for us to get to faith by means of these stories and these words, but many people within the church and outside are still at the point where Thomas was before Jesus showed up. They have heard that other people have had an experience with Jesus. But they are late to the party, and they find it hard to believe that the living Jesus is real. How can we know that he is not just an imaginary friend?

            While I was working on this sermon, Becca was watching a fantasy show on TV with big hulking monsters with huge biceps and teeth like wild boars, plus knights in shiny armor going to protect the princess. She likes fantasy and sci-fi and vampire shows, all that kind of stuff. I can’t get into it at all because the premise seems so preposterous. There is nothing there I can believe in. I prefer shows about police and politics and intense relationships, psychological stuff about people not entirely different from the ones I know. It’s a running joke with our kids that Becca likes the macho action movies and I like the chick flicks.

            But there are plenty of people on our island for whom the story of Jesus is just as preposterous as Becca’s monsters and knights. The way I feel watching her waste her time on that ridiculous stuff is the way other people feel about watching me waste my time on Jesus. It makes no sense to them. They can’t relate. And here’s the thing I must be honest about: I’ve never seen Jesus. I’ve never seen God. John says in the first chapter of his gospel that no one has ever seen God, and he ends it saying that we are blessed if we believe in Jesus without seeing.

            That’s where this story of Thomas ends—not saying that Jesus will walk through walls and let you touch his physical body, and not even that Jesus will appear to you in a vision—but that the way to life is to believe in him without seeing him. We have not seen him, but we trust the eyewitnesses, the stories about him move us to love him, his teaching has the challenging ring of truth, that God would save us by becoming one of us makes sense in terms of God’s love, and when we are listening to the story or singing about it, surrounded by others who want to believe, we do have an experience of warmth and intuitive confirmation that we describe as his presence. The early church document we call First Peter (1:8) makes no bones about the fact that we can’t see Jesus. It says, “Without having seen him, you love him; though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with indescribable joy.” That was the experience of the second-generation church in the first century, and it is our experience as well.

            Sometimes even within the church, people have the feeling that they are late to the party, that other people have had an encounter with Jesus that they have never had, even though they believe the gospel as best they are able. I think this is especially a problem in a church with a mix of people from evangelical and mainline backgrounds. Evangelical Christians tend to be comfortable with language like “I met Jesus” or “the Lord told me,” and the Mainline Protestants either roll their eyes or, more commonly, think to themselves, “That never happened to me.” Evangelicals kind of enjoy thinking, “No that didn’t happen to you. That’s what makes me different from you.” or even “That’s what makes me a real Christian.” (I say this as someone who still wears the evangelical label in some contexts.) The more liberal church members might think that they are being looked down upon, or that they don’t have the radar necessary to pick up Jesus, or that those “born-agains” are wacky.

            I would be willing to bet that our experiences are not as different as we think. A lot of this is a difference in the way we describe it; a lot of it is semantics. No evangelical I know ever “met” Jesus in a literal way—seeing him or touching him like Thomas. I doubt that many ever heard a voice when they felt the Lord was speaking to them. These are ways of describing an encounter with mystery. We might be talking about a decision to believe that is followed by an inner sense of confirmation that you did the right thing, that the spiritual being you are trusting is real and not just imaginary. We might be talking about a moment of insight or intuition or “gut feeling” about what to do. But some would talk about a personal relationship and the Lord speaking, and other would not.

We sang last Sunday the old gospel song with the refrain, “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.” I connect with those words powerfully and they may even bring me to tears. But I don’t mean them in any way literally. What it means to me, and I suspect to most people, is something like “I feel that Christ is with me and his love never abandons me; I talk with him in my prayers and I feel a sense of confirmation that he is paying attention to me, and cares about me; and when I think about Jesus and sing about him I have a reassurance that I am part of God’s family because of his love and grace.” If you would not express your faith and your experience of mystery in terms of walking and talking, that’s OK and doesn’t make it less significant. Some people will never talk about Jesus as if he were a best friend or a boyfriend—and after years of hearing that kind of Christian music, I think that’s probably just as well. I have learned other language that honors mystery and the obscurity of God and our inability to comprehend God.

Sometimes the story of Thomas is told as a way to scold people for having doubts. I don’t think that’s John’s intention at all. After all, Thomas is not punished; he’s rewarded by having Jesus show up. But it goes beyond that, because Jesus turns his attention to people for whom he will not show up because he won’t be on earth any more. On one level the story is about Thomas, the guy who is late to the party and just doesn’t “get” it. But John’s real audience is people like us, generations later, for whom Jesus will not make a personal appearance and who nevertheless come to faith. He is speaking to those of us who will find faith by means of the telling of the story of Jesus and by his powerful words recorded in the gospels and by encountering communities of faith in which people love one another deeply.

So we who are now believers hear the story saying that even though we are very late to the party, even though we will never see Jesus in this life, we are still blessed because we believe in him. But I am also thinking today of all those people on the island who think they are so late to the party that they can never get in, that it is too late for them to “get” Jesus, that there is some special equipment or dress or language you must have to come to faith. Can we talk about the good news of Jesus in a less literal way that does not seem to them to come from another universe of language than the mystery they encounter in the poetry of Rumi, say, who himself loved Jesus, or in the poetry of Mary Oliver, the nature poet who in her later years became a Christian? Can we describe our experience of God in a way that feels congruent to friends in AA who know they need a higher power but resist Christianity? Can we demonstrate so much love that people say, “Oh, they must be followers of Jesus”?

Somehow, we did come to faith even though we did not see. How that happened remains a mystery. It did not happen on our command because we invited Jesus in. It did not happen because we were baptized or confirmed. It happened because in a way we cannot explain God’s breath entered our lungs, because Christ’s life invaded our lives, because the idea of God’s love and mercy took root in our minds and hearts. How that happened we do not know, and how it will happen to our neighbors we do not know either. But we know that Jesus continues to draw people to faith in himself even though he cannot be seen, and he continues to ask us to walk by faith and not by sight.