The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
April 11, 2021
Good morning and welcome to what is known in the church world as “Low Sunday.” Church statistics keepers look at this Sunday and the Sunday after Christmas as outliers and throw out the numbers when assessing average attendance. As you are here today you are here today, you are the hard core. Good on you.
Really, there is some good stuff to be considered on the Sunday after Easter. All of the resurrection stories are as bit shadowy and mysterious. They kind of leave us hanging with some followers heading home to Galilee and some hiding out in a locked room in Jerusalem. We have to wonder what they all were thinking. Like, so what now? It is one thing for we who have the benefit of a few thousand years of resurrection talk, but it is quite another for those who were getting their hearts and minds around it for the first time. So, what now?
Given this fact, I am proposing a name change for this Sunday. Rather than Low Sunday, I believe we should call this “So What Sunday.” Last week we had more than 200 folks here to shout “Alleluia” and the “Christ is Risen,” but today we get to the more meaty and earthy reality of how this whole story continues.
John’s gospel gives us more of the resurrection story. As he tells it, later on Easter Day, the disciples are in their locked room, the same room where they had the Passover meal with Jesus. Jesus appears and rather than explaining the whole resurrection thing, he shows them his wounds, bids them peace, breathes the Holy Spirit on them and tells them that they are to practice forgiveness and let go of blame and shame. Thomas was not there. Who knows where he was? Maybe he was checking to see if the coast was clear or maybe he was getting some food. But when the others tell him about what they saw, he says he needs to see this for himself in order to believe, thus he is forever known as Doubting Thomas.
If we are honest, most of us are doubters some of the time, and some of us are doubters most of the time. Frederic Buechner puts it this way: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don't have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
Thomas’s questioning does not mean he is faithless, it means he is practical. He gives us permission keep our own seeking lively and be on the lookout for life busting through death. Then natural world gives us quite a show of this. Albert Einstein once said: “that it is not that one thing is a miracle, but that the whole thing is a miracle!” This is a good message for Easter because resurrection is not a one-time event, it is a process with a very long time-line.
When Jesus meets his disciples in the locked room, he might have had some choice words for them. He might have pointed our Peter’s denials or the way that all of them ran off to save their own skins as love suffered on the cross. When he appeared, his words were not an indictment, they were words of encouragement. He bids them peace and tells them to be forgiving. The resurrection shows that God is not interested in eye for an eye justice, God is all about setting us free from the messes we create and helping us love our way into new and full life.
The “so what” of this message is crucial and important. The folks who turn up to see the baby in the manger and then to hear of the empty tomb miss out on the whole forgiveness part. We might want to get out there with some of the Holy Spirit in our step, and show folks the rest of the story.
I do not mean this as some sort of holier than thou sour grapes. It is good to have people here to celebrate whenever they come, and however they get here. But Easter is not over when the lilies turn brown and the jelly beans are all consumed. It is just beginning. As the poet Wendell Barry says: “practice resurrection.”
What does that mean? It means looking at all of the brokenness in this world and jumping into it with love. It means letting go of shame and blame. Contrary to popular culture, it does not mean canceling others worth or dignity. It means admitting when we are judgmental or out of line. It means saying we are sorry, and meaning it rather than, ‘I am sorry you feel that way.’
I had the unfortunate occasion of spending time at my local auto repair store this week. Contrary to how some folks feel about such places, I found them to be honest, helpful, and generous. The place is not much to look at. There are decades old stacks of Popular Mechanics magazines. There are a few muscle car calendars. And there are always two to three guys, who do not work there, available for advice and consolation. They also have free coffee.
On the wall there is a great sign that reads: “Your beliefs don’t make you a better person. You behavior does.” If that is their business motto, I am all in. That is a practical statement that tells us what to do about resurrection. We are to live it.
Nobody ever come to believe anything through being shamed or having things explained as we believe they ought to believe. The old adage is that faith is caught, not taught. That is what Jesus embodies in this mystical encounter with Thomas and the rest of them. Legend has it that Thomas took off and went to India to tell the story, and when the first missionaries got there, lo and behold, there was already Christ following community.
Happy “So what Sunday.” Today we remember Thomas, not in spite of his doubt, but because of it. He accepted Jesus’ forgiveness, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and set out to show it to others. There is so much more to learn in our faith and through our doubts. Meanwhile, practice resurrection. And if in doubt as to what that means, love somebody else, and meet God there.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood