A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on April 15, 2012.
Second Sunday of Easter
Have you ever played a practical joke on someone? I’m sure we all have at some point in our lives. In fact, I think that from a young age, we learn the delights of pulling tricks. In fact, we call Wesley a trickster because he enjoys pulling our leg in so many different ways. When Wesley was young, his favorite practical joke involved a juice box. Sometimes we’d give them to the kids in the car, especially when we’re on a road trip. For Wes, when the drink was gone – and the bag was flat, then the fun was just beginning. He would blow the bag up again like a balloon. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he’d call out, “Mmmm… this juice is delicious. Daddy, would you like a sip?” And like a good dad, I’d submit to the joke. “Oh, yes, Wesley, I’m so thirsty. Thanks for sharing your juice with me.” . . . “What? What? Wesley, there is no juice in this juicebox, you trickster!” And of course, on the first time or the thirtieth time, Wesley would roar with laughter.
Roaring with laughter is a good thing, but sometimes we forget that when we come to church. Some Christians observe an Easter tradition called Bright Monday, observed the day after Easter. Basically, it’s a Christian April Fool’s Day, a day on which Christians play light pranks on one another. It may sound lighthearted and silly, but the idea of Bright Monday is rooted in the thinking of early church theologians - serious people like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom. To them, Bright Monday was a perfectly appropriate way to continue celebrating Easter, since, they argued, that on Easter God had played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. Easter was God having the last laugh on death!
It’s fun to play practical jokes, but it’s not always that fun when you’re on the receiving end of the joke. And it is definitely not funny when someone plays a practical joke on you about matters having to do with life and death. Let’s have a show of hands here. Raise your hand if you would believe a friend who told you that some dead person, Elvis Presley, let’s say, had come back to life?
I would be very skeptical. I might even think my friend was delusional. But I wouldn’t believe his claims unless I had some proof. Better yet, I would need to see that person alive myself.
That’s what happened to Thomas in this morning’s Gospel lesson, and thanks to the Gospel writer John, this poor disciple is known in history as “Doubting Thomas,” and today preachers around the world will use him as an example of the perils of doubt and lack of faith! But I think poor Thomas gets a bad rap – let’s face it: he did exactly what most of us would do. If a dead person were resurrected today, most of us wouldn’t just believe what someone else tells us second-hand, we would want to see that person alive ourselves, first-hand, in person.
Think about Thomas for a moment. Jesus appeared to the other disciples on that first Easter Sunday, and somehow Thomas missed it! The Bible doesn’t tell us why Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples, who, as you remember, locked themselves up in a room because they were afraid of what might happen to them after Jesus was executed. Perhaps Thomas had to leave town in order to take care of a family emergency. Perhaps Thomas was the only one brave enough to venture out to go fishing in order to bring back food for the others. But for whatever reason, and likely through no fault of his own, Thomas was not there in that locked room at the exciting moment when Jesus appeared to the other disciples. He missed it. And when he returned to that upper room, the other disciples were all excited and telling Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas stepped out of that room for one second, and he missed the most miraculous event of human history!
Don’t you just hate it when you miss out on something special? When Beth and I first moved to Charlottesville the summer of 1993, we started attending University Baptist Church but decided to skip out on their summer church picnic because my college roommate was getting married in Houston that same weekend. When we returned from Texas, our church friends eagerly greeted us: “You should have been at the church picnic!! Mohammed Ali was there!” “Yeah, right,” we laughed, not falling for the joke. “Like Mohammed Ali came to the University Baptist church picnic.” “No, really!” they insisted, “Mohammed Ali was at the church picnic!” They explained to us that Ron Tweel, a church member, was also Ali’s lawyer. On the weekend of the picnic, Ali was in Charlottesville to meet with Ron, so Ron invited him to the picnic, and Ali said “Yes!” He ended up working the crowd, signing autographs, posing for pictures. Of all the church picnics, we had to miss that one! Beth and I and the kids never missed a UBC church picnic after that, and at every one, I kept my eyes out for “The Greatest,” but neither Ali nor any other celebrity has ever showed up for a University Baptist picnic since.
Think about our conversation with our UBC friends when they told us Mohammed Ali had been at the picnic: on our end, there was skepticism; on their end, there was excitement. I imagine that our conversation about the picnic was a lot like the conversation that went on between Thomas and the other disciples that day after Jesus appeared. “Thomas! Thomas! You missed it! We have seen the Lord!” “Yeah right, Peter, and you can walk on water!” “No, really, Jesus IS alive, and he DID appear to us last Sunday and He said ‘Peace be with you.’ And he showed us his hands and his side.” “Is this what you call a joke? If it is true that Jesus is alive, then why are we still hiding behind locked doors? Look, unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Here is where Thomas is labeled as a “doubter.” But did Thomas have any less faith than the other disciples? The risen Jesus appeared to the others and showed his hands and side to them. And yet even after this incredible revelation, a week later, those disciples were still hiding in a locked room. Where’s the faith in that? They were offered abundant evidence, yet showed no abundant life. Now let’s think of Thomas: really, other than wanting to actually touch Jesus’ scars, Thomas was not asking for anything more than what Jesus had already provided for the other disciples. And what’s wrong with Thomas wanting the same kind of proof that the other disciples received? Not many of us would have done much better than Thomas in believing a story about a dead person being raised to life.
Instead of disparaging Thomas for his doubt, let us this morning thank Jesus for his grace. In his grace, Jesus appeared once more to the disciples – including Thomas – and He offered peace. Locked doors, doubting hearts, and fearful faith were not insurmountable obstacles for the bodily presence and peace of the risen Christ. Jesus then specifically invited Thomas to reach out and touch the scar marks on his body to offer proof of his resurrection on Thomas’ terms. Jesus offered the proof of a loving touch to Thomas. The nail-scarred hands – once pierced by pain – continue their earthly work of reaching out to provide healing and assurance. His spear-scarred body -- that once poured out water and blood – now appears before Thomas to pour out the living water of faith. And when Thomas saw Jesus, he had all the proof that he needed and he gave one of the greatest confessions of faith recorded in the New Testament, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus replied, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” I think Jesus is making an accurate observation, and not necessarily a word of judgment or disappointment. It is more comforting to have a sure, case-closed faith. It can be painful to question, to have to live with and wrestle with our questions, our doubts, our fears. The message of Thomas’ story is that Jesus responds to the skeptics and questioners, too. He doesn’t give up on Thomas just because Thomas asks for proof. God, Jesus and the resurrection can stand up to scrutiny. God can handle our questions – even if he doesn’t always respond as tangibly to us as He did to Thomas.
During this Easter season, my prayer for us disciples of Jesus is that the risen Christ will appear to us in a way that we need--so that we may see his presence and exclaim “My Lord and my God!”
Perhaps we once had a rock-solid faith like Thomas, who said to his fellow disciples as Jesus was going to the cross in Jerusalem: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). But just because we used to have a strong faith doesn’t mean that it always remains strong. For those of us now wavering in doubt, I pray that the risen Christ will have the mercy and grace to appear in his resurrected presence in order to renew our faith in our Lord and our God.
Furthermore, in our church and in our community:
- There may be disciples of Jesus to whom the risen Christ appeared last Sunday on Easter, but they are still living in fear in locked-up rooms.
- There may be disciples of Jesus who somehow missed out on the mystery and joy of Easter last week, and they are still waiting for Jesus to appear to them.
- There may by those who are genuinely doubtful and skeptical, and they are looking for a proof of a risen Christ.
The challenge of today’s Gospel lesson is that God commissions us into the world to be the body of Christ. The risen Christ breathed his Holy Spirit into his disciples and He continues to breathe his Holy Spirit into us. WE are commissioned to be Christ’s body, broken yet redeemed, scarred yet transformed, sent out of the shut doors of our church so that we might be the proof of God’s loving touch.
Pastor Fred Craddock tells a story about his father, who never went to church. Craddock writes: My mother took us to church and Sunday school; my father didn’t go. He complained about Sunday dinner being late when mom came home from church. Sometimes the preacher would call, and my father would say, “I know what the church wants. Church doesn’t care about me. Church wants another name, another pledge, another name, another pledge. Right? Isn’t that the name of it? Another name, another pledge.” That’s what he always said.
Sometimes we’d have a revival. Pastor would bring the evangelist and say to the evangelist, “There’s one now, sic him, get him,” and my dad would say the same thing. Every time, my mother in the kitchen, always nervous, in fear of flaring tempers, of somebody being hurt. And always my father said, “The church doesn’t care about me. The church wants another name and another pledge.” I guess I heard it a thousand times.
One time he didn’t say it. He was in the veteran’s hospital, and he was down to seventy-three pounds. They’d taken out his throat, and said, “It’s too late.” They put in a metal tube, and X-rays burned him to pieces. I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t eat. I looked around the room, potted plants and cut flowers on all the windowsills, a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed. And even that tray where they put food, if you can eat, on that was a flower. And all the flowers beside the bed, every card, every blossom, were from persons or groups from the church.
He saw me read a card. He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare. He wrote: “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”
I said, “What is your story, Daddy?”
And he wrote, “I was wrong.”
That’s the proof of a loving touch. As Christ’s body, how beautiful are the hands that serve dinners for those who just experienced a death in their family or distribute food at FACES or Meals on Wheels. How beautiful are the hands who write prayer cards to those sick and infirmed or hammer nails and paint for a Habitat for Humanity house. How beautiful are the feet that travel to visit our homebound or residents at Holly Manor. How beautiful are the feet of those who travel to Piedmont Regional Jail to lead worship services for inmates. How beautiful when humble hearts give the fruit of pure love to our children and youth. How beautiful are those with tender eyes that choose to forgive and never despise. How beautiful when the body of Christ witnesses to the resurrection through the proof of a loving touch. Amen.
 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, Chalice Press, p. 14.