Sermon by Jered Weber-Johnson - Apr 19, 2020

I Want to See

I Want to See

Second Sunday of Easter

Year A

April 19, 2020

A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson

For Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

Saint Paul, MN

 

I want to begin this morning by making perhaps a somewhat controversial claim. 

Doubt is not an essential component of faith. 

I’m sure this puts me immediately at odds with many of you dear friends this morning, perhaps even seemingly at odds with things I’ve said in previous sermons. In fact, I’m willing to claim that a survey of Episcopal preaching over the past 4 decades where doubt is discussed, would likely find a trend toward describing doubt as not only necessary to faith, but almost a virtue to be celebrated. And, all of this has been done with good intention.

For too long Christians have regarded those who struggle to believe all the quite unbelievable things about faith, as somehow less faithful. Across our history, Christians have downplayed critical thinking, and reason, and then glossed over a mountain of missing facts so as to celebrate and lift up blind faith. This has led to a version of Christianity, still quite prominent in many places, especially in our country, that seems quite out of step with reality — Christianity has, quite frankly, appeared to be somewhat ignorant. But, the opposite of ignorance isn’t doubt but rather truth, reality, and rigorous inquiry. So, when we celebrate doubt (or when we appear to), we are actually celebrating a healthy sense of skepticism and a voracious appetite to find the truth. We are celebrating the life of the mind and the intellect. But, doubt exists, at least in part, somewhere else. Doubt, as its ancient roots would point, speaks as much if not more to feeling than to thinking, more to the gut than to the head – doubt links to fear and distrust. We doubt the outcome of a medical test. We doubt our own ability to perform the task ahead. We doubt that a loved one will recover. Doubt, like grief, is an unavoidable reality in life. But, it is not a necessary component of our faith, it is not something to be sought or celebrated, any more than suffering and loss. 

This morning’s gospel is most assuredly not about doubt, but, rather, belief. And, like doubt, belief is not purely about rational and intellectual pursuits. Belief, like its ancient root also indicates, is about trust, about our gut, about feeling. When we say we believe, we are saying our heart leads us to trust something or someone. To say we believe is to say we have faith that the account we are hearing comes from a reliable witness. Doubt arises when our ability to trust has been severely impaired, usually because of betrayal, trauma, or loss. When the disciples share their encounter with the risen Jesus, Thomas’ grief prevents him from trusting his friends. Keep in mind that, according to the gospel accounts, Thomas had witnessed the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Surely then, Jesus’ resurrection was well within the realm of possibility. There was evidence that it could happen. So, Thomas’ demand to see Jesus alive, to touch his wounds, is less a demand for evidence, than it is a lament over his inability to see past the grief of his present moment. Jesus had died the most shameful of deaths – a convicted criminal, publicly humiliated – and the disciples had watched all, ALL of their hopes be dashed as their messiah died on display before the might of Rome. The report of Jesus’s return would need to penetrate far past rational thought, and down into a place of deep despair. Thomas doubts. It is a state of being, not a condition of thinking. 

“Show me!” He demands. “Show me this risen Jesus. Let me thrust my hand into his open wounds!” 

There is such hurt here. There is so much pain here. Blessed are they who believe and do not have to pass through such doubt, such pain, such darkness and despair. 

Scholars believe that the community out of which the gospel of John was written was a community in the throws of such loss and pain. This early community of Christians was likely expelled from the synagogue, separated from the body of fellow believers, from family and friends, from the traditions and practices that had made them and formed them, because of their confession that Jesus was their Lord and their God. Here is a community of people experiencing trauma and grief, likely doubting whether they should even be a part of this fledgling movement – wondering, is this pain worth it? Here is a group alienated and separated from those they love. And, this gospel then is a word of hope and healing to them. Do not doubt, but believe.

We too are in the midst of our own journey through shadow. The world seems permeated with fear and grief and loss. We are separated too from those we love, from family and friends, from the community of the church. We too feel at moments like we have lost those familiar practices and habits, physically embodied in a people and a place, and are adrift in a strange new land. And, then the church has the audacity to still proclaim, “Christ is Risen,” and our reply “The Lord is Risen indeed” might stick in our throat. You might be justified, this morning, if you lamented – show me this risen Lord, show me the wounds, let me touch the Body of Christ. I want to be with the Body of Christ, to rub shoulders with it, to sing together as a part of it, to hear my prayers and praises mingled in hearty response, to kneel and receive it at the altar.

It is important to note of this gospel passage, that Thomas’ demand is granted. Jesus does show himself. And, like so much of our faith life, Jesus shows up when the body is gathered. This past Sunday, like many of you, I was buoyed by the Easter service at the National Cathedral. The Presiding Bishop’s sermon was balm for the soul and the music lifted my spirit. But, perhaps even more meaningful was the celebration of the Spiritual Communion by the Right Reverend Mariann Budde, bishop of the Diocese of Washington. We’ve been observing a rite for Spiritual Communion here at Saint John’s since the lockdown began, and will likely continue it as this time continues. But, to see the actual bread and wine consecrated, to look upon the body of Christ, broken and poured out, there in front of me, was like an answer to an inarticulate lament. Show me the nail pierced hands! There they were, out in front of me, in front of all of us. Jesus showed up. Jesus, our Risen Lord, continues to show up.

That small glimpse of so great a gift has begun to transform so many other things for me. Now I can see too and even believe in new ways that Christ has been raised. We are in a unique time not only as a church, but as a culture, when we cannot see each other as often, and we certainly cannot touch or embrace. We cannot physically do the things that show how we are connected – we can’t sit together or do the heavy lifting for someone else, cook a meal, or hold someone while they grieve. But, the Risen body is still showing up. Every phone call by a member of this church, and there are literally hundreds happening each week, each Zoom happy hour, each card written, each minute spent in prayer for the members of this church, is the body showing up, wounds and all. Every time we share about our grief, or invite the church to pray over us in moments of fear, every time we are vulnerable with one another, the Risen Christ is present. 

If you cannot respond “He is risen indeed,” that’s ok. I encourage you to maybe try Thomas’ response – “I want to see.” The promise of our faith is that he will reveal himself.

This morning, no matter what clouds your heart, what grief this present moment is bringing, no matter the doubt or the pain, Jesus, raised and in the flesh, is showing up, wounds and all, all around this church, in our homes, and in the world. As John’s gospel says, these things were written so that you might come to believe, so that you might continue to believe, that Jesus is with you, that resurrection is possible, that even in the midst of grief and loss, God’s love and presence can be known and experienced. Amen.