There are some things you can just depend upon, even in this year when we have had so much upheaval and uncertainty. And somewhat ironically one thing we can depend upon is that every year on this Second Sunday of Easter we hear this Gospel reading about Thomas.
It doesn’t vary, even with the three-year lectionary cycle. The passage is there – solid, consistent, dependable; and so we have the opportunity to come to it afresh every year, with eyes and ears and hearts that have been shaped and affected by everything we have gone through in the year that has passed.
So often in the history of this Gospel passage being read or studied or preached Thomas has either been criticized as a doubter or defended as a sensible practical person. But something a little different about Thomas and his exchange with the Risen Jesus has caught my attention.
Thomas 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.”
Unless I see…unless I touch. What if this is not about Thomas needing verifiable proof of Jesus’ resurrection?
Thomas had not been present on Easter evening when Jesus appeared to the gathered disciples. He may well have felt hurt, left out from the joyful experience. Thomas may have been one of those people who takes in the world primarily by seeing, rather than hearing – what we might call a “visual learner.” If that were the case then merely hearing about Jesus’ resurrection might not have registered with Thomas at a deep level, would not have made spiritual and emotional sense to him.
We all learn and take in information and our surroundings and our relationships in a variety of ways, and some of us lean strongly in a particular direction – visual, auditory, hands-on, verbal, or social styles of learning for example. And we all come to faith or are sustained in our faith in a similar variety of ways.
One of the characteristics I know about All Saints’ as a parish, for instance, is that many of us find that music often expresses feelings and thoughts about our faith that we might struggle to put into words. And music also touches our depths and becomes a vehicle to us for God’s grace and love.
In similar ways, contemplating symbols, and structures, and artwork and visual beauty feeds many of our souls and draws us near to God – again, in ways words may not be able to express.
As Episcopalians we value what you might call “whole body worship” in which we stand, sit kneel, embrace or clasp hands, sing, speak, listen, breathe, bow, process, get wet with baptismal water, receive bread and wine – the Body and Blood of our Lord. Which is what has made this time of being Church in pandemic so very difficult.
For all the ways that I am grateful for Zoom and for other technology that has enabled us to gather, to pray together, to hear Scripture, to sing – after a fashion – to create and listen to music, to see pictures, it is not the full expression of our faith. And we miss all those elements that used to sustain and reinforce our personal faith and our life as a Christian community.
In the Gospel, when Jesus appears to the disciples again – a week after the day of the Resurrection, Thomas is there. Jesus bids them all “peace” as he did before, and then he invites Thomas to see and touch; to do those things that Thomas needs to do to take in this amazing and life-giving new reality. Jesus offers him an avenue or a portal to faith that was what Thomas needed – visual and tactile. Thomas’ response was immediate, heartfelt, and life-changing: “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas can be an icon or an example for us. His experience of the Risen Christ came in the context of the gathered community, the group to which Jesus had said in his previous Resurrection appearance, “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Thomas did not make his exclamation of faith merely to say, “Well now that I have seen Jesus’ wounds, I feel connected to God and comforted in a personal way.” Thomas’s faith in his Lord was going to send him and the rest of the disciples out on God’s behalf, just as Jesus had been sent.
Indeed, the Book of Acts tells us that in the earliest days of the Church that “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” They had a radical re-working of their understanding of how life should be lived after the Resurrection; a single family of faith with the Risen Christ as their center.
As we move closer to being able to gather in person again, to being able to experience “whole-body worship”, to practicing once more those aspects of our faith that have so sustained us in the past, it is important to come to them anew, afresh – just have we have been able to do with this morning’s Gospel. It will be essential to re-invest ourselves in the practices, the meaning, and the realities of those things we find so life-giving. And in doing so we may find that there are aspects of our previous practices or attitudes or ways of being Church that need to step back a bit or fade out, and others that need to become much more front-of-mind and focus.
At root we are a community of faith gathered around font and altar – the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist – those portals through which the Risen Life of Christ comes to us and among us and within us, infusing us with God’s life and love. And we are a community of God’s story, of lectern and pulpit, of the proclamation of Scripture and our conversation with it; a conversation between and amongst ourselves within our daily lives.
These are the elements that need to shape us and energize us. This is what needs to feed us, to bind us together, to bring vitality to our relationships with one another. The Church is the visible Body of Christ and we as a community and as individuals are to be examples, expressions, and portals of Christ to those around us.
As we begin to approach the time of re-gathering it will be important to let these fundamentals of Scripture and sacrament re-define us in ways that will be both challenging and life-giving. They should be the starting point, foundation, and guide for our conversations and decisions about the shape, direction, and focus for our parish and our faith – in the same way that Thomas’ acclamation of faith in the Risen Christ did for him and those earliest disciples.
When we mindfully, intentionally, expectantly focus on Christ in our midst – in all the variety of ways he comes to us – and open ourselves to receiving and being changed by him, then we will reflect much more truly and completely God’s love and light and wisdom and healing in a world that very badly needs them.
Let us pray.
Loving God, who have told us how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters in the faith live together in unity. Guide us in the ordering of our common life and our community that we may be more truly your people in your world, to your praise and glory. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday of Easter
April 11, 2021