Delivered 4/15/07 at First Church in Cambridge, Congregational
You might have noticed that the title of this sermon is a nod to William Shakespeare’s Henry V. In it, Henry refers to his warriors as a “happy few” and a “band of brothers.” I had no idea when I chose this title that it would apply to those coming out to worship this morning, that it would take courage to brave the monsoon! So good morning, and welcome to this band of courageous brothers and sisters.
The standard sermon for today’s lectionary, and especially for the story of Doubting Thomas, goes something like this: Poor Thomas, he just didn’t have enough faith. It’s a good thing we have enough faith. Yeah us! Or maybe, I know you’re having a hard time believing the teachings of the church in light of the real world, but don’t be a doubting Thomas. This is not going to be that standard sermon. If that’s what you are looking for this morning, you might still be able to catch the service at another local church. But if you want to hear why this story finds its way into the gospel and what it can tell us about living as Christians today, hang around.
Now, let’s imagine for a moment that I’m an author, and the Gospel of John is in manuscript form, and here I am sitting before my editor waiting to hear the magic words. No, not Pulitzer, though those are pretty magic as well. I’m talking the ultimate magic words: cash advance. But instead what I hear is: “Let’s talk about the motivation of Thomas in the final chapter. I’m not sure you’ve made your case. The man has seen Lazarus raised from the dead, the storm stilled, walking on water, miracle after miracle. Why doesn’t he believe now? It’s just not plausible.”
We probably all feel a bit like my fictional editor. Just because something happened while I was out getting the milk and bread doesn’t mean I don’t believe it. Judas Didymus Thomas is believed by many to be the brother of Jesus, and has been with these folks, these women and men traveling with and learning from Jesus, for several years. They’ve been through some amazing times together. And they’ve seen miracles, they’ve seen death defeated. So why doubt now?
To understand this text it helps to think a little bit about what was going on among the followers of Jesus when this text was written. Early Christians didn’t know what to believe. Even his immediate circle of followers wasn’t sure what to make of Jesus. Christianity was moving towards orthodoxy, right belief, which really just means majority belief or belief of the guys that have the biggest swords or the friends with the biggest swords. The authors and authorizers of the Gospels were deeply involved in this struggle to understand the Christ event. Jesus mattered, they knew that, but he always seemed to be just beyond their understanding.
One area of conflict after the first generation of apostles had died, after the immediate witnesses were gone, was how were they to understand the resurrection? Was the resurrection bodily, with flesh and blood? Or was it a resurrection of spirit. This was a question not just about Jesus, but a question about what it meant to be human. Belief in a bodily resurrection was widespread among the Judeans after the Babylonian Exile, but wasn’t part of the Greco-Roman system of belief, so there was a bit of a cultural mismatch as the gospel of Jesus spread beyond its Judean roots. This gospel story affirms the physicality of the resurrection, flesh and blood, stuff you could touch. One hint of the counter-argument can be seen in the story of the appearance on the road to Emmaus.
Another struggle was between those who would come to define orthodox Christian belief and those who adopted a viewpoint we could loosely call Gnostic. We don’t need to spend much time on what that meant, it should suffice to say that the apostles most associated with the heterodox Gnostics were Mary Magdalene and Judas Didymus Thomas. Yes, the female apostle who is written out of any leadership role in the Jesus community, and by the time of Gregory the Great has been conflated with the woman taken in adultery, has been re-cast as prostitute, and our poor bumbling doubting Thomas. Our text is about confirming that Jesus was resurrected in the body, and it is about deciding whose understanding of the Christ event is correct. That is not to say that these events did not happen. But it helps us to see the humans involved in the gospel story, in the creation of the gospels, in the decisions about which stories were written down and which were not.
So what are we supposed to do with the story of Doubting Thomas? If this text is about doctrinal struggles, what can a Christian today learn from it? Well, we can all admit that Thomas comes off looking like a knucklehead. But they all look like knuckleheads. Let’s start with Simon Peter. In the Lucan version of his call, we always skip to the line where Jesus says “I’ll make you a fisher of humans.” We ignore Peter’s first response. “Dude, I’m unrighteous. Go away.” I suspect Peter gets nicknamed Rock not because he is “the Rock of the Church” but because he is about as smart as a box of rocks. Who can forget the denials? Of course, he gets it right sometimes too. But don’t we all.
Then there are James and John, so rowdy that they get nicknamed the Sons of Thunder. I like to think of them as the biblical Bash Brothers. If you’re the right age to know the Mighty Ducks movies, you know what I’m talking about. “Dude, let us be your top two guys?” they ask Jesus. And Jesus’ response? “Dudes, you so do not know what you are asking.”
These guys don’t know what’s going on, don’t know what to believe, the gospels writers tell us that Jesus isn’t even trying to make it clear, because it will become clear on resurrection morning. The preaching and teaching and miracle, the feast in the Upper Room and the murder on the tree, it will be clear. The Holy Spirit will comfort them and inspire them and they will change the world. But they’ll still be a bunch of knuckleheads! Even after the resurrection. After he has assumed a leadership role in the early church, Peter still blunders at Antioch. “Unclean food? What unclean food?” They don’t know what to believe, what to do, how to act. But they do know this. Jesus changes everything!
They tried to explain Jesus in terms of his own Judean religion. Davidic messiah, except he didn’t create an independent Israel. Suffering Servant, but what does that mean exactly? Son of Man, more confusing than Suffering Servant! They took up a term of the Roman Empire, Son of God, which seemed to fit nicely and matched Jesus’ own description of his relationship with God. It had the added benefit of suggesting there was another kingdom that had the final say, something more powerful than the brutal fist of Rome. They used all of these titles and more trying to describe who Jesus was, what he did, what he meant. And in the midst of this confusion and this grasping for meaning, they did an amazing thing. They built a new world.
I have no doubt that the mixture of sheer terror and overwhelming hope of that one weekend in Jerusalem stayed with the apostles, women and men, for the rest of their lives. The confusion, the shock. But they took their evangelion, literally the good proclamation, and they went out there and said this: Jesus changes everything.
And here we are two millennia later. The name Jesus is controlled by the neo-Pharisees, selective literalists who have the audacity to speak for God and who claim to have the “fundamentals” right. They’ve reduced Jesus to death insurance, to an excuse for self-righteousness, to a nationalistic warrior. We sit back so ashamed of what has been done in the name of Jesus, that we are afraid to speak it in public. Jesus has been co-opted by Empire, by the individualism of the Enlightenment, by the thinly disguised selfishness of our economic system. And here we sit, barely speaking, ashamed. You don’t have to be a theologian or a biblical scholar to see what is at stake. You don’t even have to be certain. You can be a knucklehead and spread the good news!
When I get up in the morning, a week and three snooze-buttons behind schedule, I can do so knowing this. God is good. Jesus changes everything. The Protestant theologian Karl Barth, when asked to summarize his thirteen-volume “Church Dogmatics,” thought for a moment and responded “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Even a knucklehead can get that! Do you know that Jesus loves you? That God is good? Does knowing Jesus change your life? Because if this is a church, if this is about the evangelion, then we must be the ones to proclaim it. Jesus lives! Reclaim the name. When others preach hatred and division in the name of Christ, confront them, tell them they are worshipping idols of their own creation. If progressives are silent then Christianity will die a slow irrelevant death.
The Church of Christ is about more than homeless shelters, recycling and war protests. Those things are important, they are part of the great commandment, love God above all things and love your neighbor as you love yourself. But there are two “greats” that Jesus gave us. The Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Go forth and make disciples of all nations. Telling people about Jesus is essential to Christian identity, is important to our own living of Christ in the world. That band of knuckleheads, a few dozen women and men, changed the world. And the world today wants Jesus, a real authentic mysterious Jesus, not the manufactured buddy Jesus / judging Jesus of the tyrant God found in the public media. Easter Jesus is always just beyond our grasp, and that’s okay.
The public media is busy deconstructing Jesus. The DaVince Code, the Jesus Family tomb, the Gospel of Judas, any attack on Christianity and Christian belief is okay. But there is a world between the media attack on all Christian belief and the neo-Pharisees, that world is us. We are members of a progressive Christianity stretching back two thousand years. We recognize that Christianity has changed, has always changed in response to the dynamic mysterious creativity which is life on this miracle planet. And Christianity must continue to change. We must act, before the reckless greed and hate-filled beliefs so dominant in our culture destroy our planet, and its ability to sustain life. Before the theology that makes humans demi-gods, tyrants over the planet, free to do as we want, kills us.
I’m not asking us to do something easy. I was telling you the truth when I said I wake up knowing God is good and Jesus changes everything. That doesn’t mean I know anything else! I’m pretty clear in my identity. Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to meet you. I’m a knucklehead. If I claim to know what Jesus is about, what God is about, if I claim to know how we should live, how am I different than the religious political extremists on the right? Is the choice between silence and lies? When the divine is always just beyond our grasp, what can we do?
This is where faith comes in. This is where belief in things unseen really matters. I believe that if we prayerfully engage the world, if we bring sacrament and Scripture and love with us into the world, we can change it. We can be the leaven in the loaf, not because we can do it on our own, but because Christ is with us when we are gathered in his name, because the good news is the tree and the empty tomb, because Easter is joyful hope, stunned confusion, it is fear and love , it is life in our amazing God.
We must reach back to that original Easter morning, and tell the world! Change the world. Proclaim the good news. Christ is risen indeed. Jesus changes everything. If Peter with his head of stone, if the Bash Brothers and Thomas and Mary Magdalene, if they could go out and preach, so can we. They didn’t know what they were doing either. They lived in that Easter moment. So can we. So must we. Welcome my knuckleheaded sisters and brothers. Welcome to the joy of life in Christ! Proclaim the name! Jesus the Christ, our salvation. Amen.