Sunday April 19, 2020

2nd Sunday after Easter – 2020a

New Testament - John 20:19-31

A Plaque On The Forehead

INTRODUCTION: Saint Francis of Assisi, as many you are probably aware, was known for his special relationship with animals.


Often portrayed in sculptures and other pieces of art with birds on his arms and in his hands, Assisi was also known, apparently, to preach to them. As he shared the good news with birds, they would gather around him in mass to hear his message of hope and love.


Of course, another legend is that Assisi, toward the end of his life, acquired stigmata. The marks of the nails from Jesus’ crucifixion, in other words, appeared on Assisi’s hands and feet. In fact, according to some accounts, the wounds on his hands and feet actually looked as if the nails were also still firmly stuck in place.


Well, there happened to be a soldier named Jerome who was dubious about such a thing. And so as the story goes, it was only after he was allowed to wiggle the nails around in Assisi’s hands and feet that he finally believed. Known as the Incredulity of Jerome, the scene is portrayed in a fresco at a famous chapel in Florence, Italy.


Well, long before Jerome ever got around to wiggling the nails in Assisi’s hands and feet, Thomas was also known to be a bit incredulous too, right? Especially when it came to Jesus' resurrection.


It’s the evening of Jesus' resurrection and the disciples announce to Thomas, who missed the big event, that they have seen the Lord. Thomas, for his part, is reluctant to take their word for it. Thomas, it turns out, is a realist and he’s not going to believe anything unless he sees it with his own eyes.


And since he hadn’t seen Jesus himself, there was no way he was going to believe he had been resurrected. Or as he put it, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And so a week later, Thomas finally gets his wish. Despite the doors still being shut, Jesus shows up in order for Thomas to see him firsthand. 


In The Incredulity of Thomas, the Italian painter Caravaggio famously depicts Thomas doing just what he promised to do. Thomas, with eyes peering intently at Jesus torso, is shown sticking his finger into the wound on his teacher’s  side. Even more unsettling, Jesus can clearly be seen holding Thomas by the wrist sort of pulling his finger into his open side.


But now here’s the funny thing.


Although we’ve traditionally been pretty hard on old Thomas, even going so far as to give him that famous disparaging moniker of Doubting Thomas, misgivings about the resurrection are hardly new. While we’ve often interpreted Thomas’ doubts as a sign of weak faith, truth be told, he wasn’t really any different than the other disciples.


Take, for example, Mary Magdalene’s initial response to finding the tomb empty. Believing Jesus’ body to have been stolen, resurrection is the farthest thing from her mind. It’s only after Jesus meets her at the tomb that she believes. 


And then there’s the general behavior of the disciples later that same day. According to John, they’re all huddled in a house with the doors locked and windows sealed tight despite Mary’s message of resurrection. Even after Jesus appears to them, they’re hardly shining examples of faith, right? For a full week later, when Jesus also finally appears to Thomas, we’re told the doors of the house are still shut.   


So Thomas is hardly the exception when it comes to doubts. Everyone else, apparently, also had them. Even those who had seen the risen Christ a week before Thomas got to, hardly seemed to be full of a vibrant and strong faith.  


And of course, all these years later, with so much distance between us and Easter, well, doubts are still easy to come by, right?


After all, how many fellow believers do we know who claim to have seen the risen Lord? Sure, there’s Oral Roberts, who in 1977 claimed to have seen a 900 foot Jesus one day. But for the most part, reports of the risen Christ showing up in people’s living rooms in 2020 are few and far between.


No wonder, after Thomas gets to poke around in Jesus’ side to confirm what he has already been told, Jesus offers up that famous blessing: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”


You see, John, in his Gospel, well, he seems to have almost anticipated there would be believers years and years later who wouldn’t have the benefit of getting to see the risen Christ themselves. His whole Gospel seems to be written as a word of faith for those who would follow after those first disciples. 


Or as John puts it at the end of our reading this morning: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”


So do you see how a big part of faith for all of us comes from those who have gone before us?


Sure, there is an inner, personal dimension of faith for each of us, but faith is also something that comes to us through the witness and testimony of that great community of believers stretching all the way back to that very first Easter. Through sermons, songs, prayers, and liturgy shared over the ages we can proclaim as a community “Christ is risen.”            


Will Willmon has a great story about a young boy asking an older church member one day why there were so many plaques stuck everywhere in the church with dead people’s names on them. “Is it because these people paid for the right to have their names on a plaque just because they gave money to the church?”    


The older church member responded, “We’ve got these plaques everywhere to remind boys like you that you didn’t think up Jesus on your own. Somebody had to tell you, show you.”


To which the man then added a bit later, “[Son], you didn’t come into the world owning any of this. The names of the dead are stuck everywhere to remind you that what you believe, your salvation, this church - gift. Gift all the way down.


“If this church had done it right, we would’ve nailed a plaque on your forehead saying: ‘Here, Courtesy of Somebody Else.’”   


CONCLUSION: Well, with so much distance between us and that first Easter, it’s easy (and even understandable!) to have some doubts.


So thank heavens we have that great line of witnesses who have proclaimed the good news over the years. Because we just don’t think Jesus up all on our own, right? Somebody always has to tell us and show us. For none of us get here solely on our own. Nope. We’re here courtesy of somebody else. 


So blessed, indeed, are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.        


Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.