19 April 2009

Quasi Modo Geniti - Easter II

Quasi Modo Geniti
Easter II

Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

    Introit: As newborn babes, alleluia, desire the rational milk without guile, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. (Ps. 80. 2). Rejoice to God our Helper; sing aloud to the God of Jacob.
Poor Thomas!

We’re at that time of year again. Easter Day is past and once more we’re reading about Thomas, who evidently just can’t believe Jesus has been raised from the dead.

But don’t we love this story? We love Thomas.

We love to chuckle indulgently over his lack of faith, because we certainly don’t have trouble believing. We’ve even given him a nick-name: doubting Thomas. It’s become so much of a cliché that we can hardly believe Thomas is capable of anything except doubting.

This story seems so simple. Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the apostles the first time – and when he heard about that, he simply found it hard to fathom. “I won’t believe until I see it for myself,” he says. And lo and behold, Jesus calls his bluff.

We could say, “End of story”; but of course, it’s not.

There’s a whole lot more to this reading than a simple story of doubting Thomas. To begin with, it isn’t all that simple – and yes, this story also says something about us. Like Thomas, we too are part of a community built on faith.

So, let’s take a look again at what this story is all about.

The apostles are gathered in a room on the first day of the week – the same as they had done when Jesus was with them. Jesus suddenly appears among them. He breathes on them, imparting to them the life of the Spirit. But for some reason, Thomas wasn’t there. He only hears about what happened, and he simply can’t believe.

The following week, the apostles, including Thomas this time, were in the room when Jesus again appeared among them. Jesus offered Thomas the chance to touch his hands and his side, but Thomas doesn’t seem to need to do that. Instead he offers Jesus his profession of faith: “My Lord and my God.”

The thing about this story that should be a lesson to us is that Jesus appears each time within the assembled community. Jesus doesn’t appear to Thomas alone. But he also doesn’t appear to Thomas in the group to embarrass him. Jesus appears to the group because it is within the group that they could continue learning about him, supporting each other, and being effective witnesses to the life of faith Jesus offers them.

In the final verses of today’s gospel passage, Jesus tells the disciples that many would come after them who would not have the same experience of him that they did. No one would again walk and talk with him as the disciples had; and yet, these others would also come to believe. Even the writer of this gospel says that the things about Jesus that were written in this gospel were written so that others may come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah and that through believing would have life in his name.

So, in one sense, Jesus was offering Thomas a chance to experience seeing him risen from the dead the same way the other disciples had. In doing that, Jesus also further strengthened the faith of that particular gathered community.

In another sense, Jesus is strengthening us all. We, too, are a gathered community – getting together at the beginning of the week in very much the same way the apostles did. They gathered to share their real life experience of knowing Jesus and working with him.

The apostles remembered him saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.” We gather to share in that story. For us, it is a remembrance of the story handed down to us, but unlike many of the family stories we tell, this is not just a remembrance – we continue to share in the presence of Jesus through the Eucharist. How that happens is a mystery, but in that mystery lies the powerful sense of belonging that draws us back here each week.

This image of the community gathered in prayer for strength and to keep the story alive is a very important one for all of us in the church today. On Easter, in churches all over the world, the paschal candle was held high and brought into dark churches. “The Light of Christ!” and then “Thanks be to God!” was sung by thousands of congregations of several different traditions.

Remembering how the time zones work, we realize that the Light of Christ was being proclaimed, was being brought into the darkness to give light to that darkness pretty consistently for about 24 hours. Imagine the Light traveling from the first dawn of Easter to the last. Imagine all those voices singing and shouting that Christ is alive! Imagine being a part of a whole world acting as one community sharing its faith with one another and with the world. That’s how our community has grown from that tiny group of twelve apostles and a band of followers. It doesn’t get any better than this.

And yet ... and yet ... today we also realize that the excitement of the Resurrection and the first sightings of Jesus didn’t make those early disciples perfect. It didn’t take away all doubt, all fear. The disciples were still hanging about the room, afraid of possible repercussions. Thomas wondered and was honest about it. Change from being the followers into being the ones responsible for doing what Jesus did was still a bit scary.

We see a lot of ourselves here. So, what do we do with this?

It’s a story about faith, remember. It took faith for those disciples to stick together after the crucifixion. It took faith for them to hang on when they couldn’t see Jesus anymore. It took faith for them to believe they could work out their new life together – to believe that the risen Jesus would always be there for them. That Light that filled our hearts with joy and exultation on Easter is the same Light that guides us now. It’s the same Light that will help us continue building community with all its ups and downs, confidence builders and doubts.

As Episcopalians, we do believe that we are loved by the God who made us. When in our humanness we give in to doubt, we are not cut off from the love or strength of God; we’re offered the same chance as Thomas to experience the reality of God’s love. Because in the community of faith, we are always accepted at God’s altar and in the company of our fellow believers or our fellow doubters. We’re all in this together.

So, maybe we should stop labeling Thomas as “doubting Thomas” and be grateful to him for showing us that it’s OK to question and that it’s perfectly normal to have doubts.

But we should also learn from his story that, as a community, we have the responsibility to share the story we’ve been told and to be a strength to each other and to those around us. We do this all week long, wherever we are, by living faithful lives.

We realize also that it’s in the Eucharist that we find the strength to do all this. As we live this out, we’ll see ourselves getting stronger and stronger. We’ll be a congregation that others will want to join, because they’ll see that this is a place where it’s OK to question as Thomas did; that this is a place where everyone’s gifts are appreciated; that this is a place where all are welcome.

Remember, Jesus says to all of us, “Blest are those who have not seen, but believe.”

-- The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

For literary buffs, the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" was named Quasi Modo because he was found on the portal of the cathedral on the Sunday after Easter