Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Mark 5:1-20 Jesus Heals the Gerasene Demoniac
They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.
The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
This story is a little bit of an Easter story. Yes, I know that Easter was weeks ago in April. And, yes, Dana did just read us something about a man possessed by a whole bunch of demons that later go and possess a bunch of hogs. You might be thinking back to Easter and not recall very many hogs showing up except for at Easter supper. But, I’m telling you. I think that this story is a little bit of an Easter story.
Let’s do a comparison. Easter begins at a tomb. This story begins at a tomb, or near enough to the tombs that the man who lives there can find Jesus just as soon as he steps off the boat in the area. Usually, the only people at the tombs are the mourners visiting the tombs or the people who have died and are now inside the tombs. Who is this man who they say lives at the tombs?
Easter also starts with people who are without hope. If this man lives in the tombs, it probably means that his community is without hope for his healing. Notice how tormented he sounds. Night and day, he howls and harms himself on the stones. His neighbors had tried to restrain him with chains, either to protect themselves or to protect him from his own self-destructive behavior. And, why would he live among the tombs, a place often considered unclean, when he could live with his family? I learned from Dr. Bonnie Bowman Thurston that in some Jewish traditions during the era in which Jesus lived, there were four tests to see if someone has grown mentally unwell: a person that spends time in a grave, a person that tears at their clothing, a person that takes dangerous walks in the dark of night, or a person that destroys anything given to them is considered deeply unwell. This person who lives among the tombs exhibits each of these behaviors. So, his neighbors are without hope that they can help him.
Easter is a surprise, too. And, there are so many surprises in this story. First of all, did you see how Jesus’ presence calms the man who is so wild that people thought they needed to chain him up? The man saw Jesus from far away and runs right at him and bows down to worship him. The second surprise: the demons. Not that this man might be possessed. Illness and presumed demon-possession were connected in this era. So, the idea that he might be possessed would not have been surprising. What is surprising is that they say that there are so many of them. They are called Legion. Do you know how many are in a Roman legion? Four thousand to six thousand Roman soldiers. Now, it’s not clear if the demons really meant four thousand or are just using it as a handy metaphor for “a whole bunch.” But, what is surprisingly clear is that a whole bunch of something is tormenting this man.
It’s also surprising that the demons try to negotiate with Jesus. Ok, they say, we know you can get us out of this man. That’s fine. But, what if you let us stay in this area. The climate is lovely and we so enjoy the view from the tombs. Jesus seems unmoved. Then, they try another tack. Ok, the pigs. Let us go into the pigs. Just don’t destroy us. Jesus surprisingly says yes. This does not mean particularly good things for the herd of pigs. Unfortunately. The demons couldn’t help but destroy life. They tried to destroy the man. They succeeded in destroying the animals, which is a shame.
The Easter story, at least in Mark, has no small portion of fear, either. Mark’s version is the one where it says that the women who found the tomb empty were afraid and told no one. We know that they must have pushed past their fear and told someone, because we know their story. But, initially, they were afraid. The now-healed man’s community was afraid. Having grown accustomed to his torment and their hopelessness, they didn’t know how to respond when they saw him well and whole once again. Dr. Thurston, in her commentary on this story says that they might be worried about their property more than their neighbor. Some farmer just lost all those pigs! If Jesus keeps hanging around, what more might they lose? “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” They must not have heard that part yet.
The man who has been saved though... his response, well, Jesus’ response, too... that’s what really makes this an Easter story. The man whose life has been restored from living death wants to follow Jesus. That is the proper response to a resurrection. But, Jesus has a different future in mind. During the Resurrection account at the end of Mark, the angelic figure tells the women to go and tell other people what they had seen. In this story, Jesus tells the man to do the same. “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” In all the rest of Mark, Jesus is hesitant to allow the people he’s healed to tell people what happens. But, not here. Here, he invites this man who has been changed to tell people how. Dr. Thurston puts it this way: Jesus delivers and Jesus sends.
This man who had lived a life we wouldn’t wish on anyone now has a plan. He will preach the good news. He will offer more grace than was offered him. And, he will live a life renewed, a foretaste of the Resurrection to come. Life restored. Faith renewed. Mission assigned. That certainly sounds a little like Easter to me. Now, I imagine your delivery might not be as dramatic as this man’s story. Or, maybe it was. The things that keep us all of this world from living into God’s kindom are Legion. But, this story shows us that we can’t be so attached to the way things are that we are afraid of the renewed Life that could be. Our stuff isn’t more important than our neighbor. The sick and tormented deserve care, not abandonment. We are here because we have met Jesus. Let’s not be afraid to tell others how we’ve been changed.
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‘But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
Mortals do not know the way to it,
and it is not found in the land of the living.
The deep says, “It is not in me”,
and the sea says, “It is not with me.”
It cannot be bought for gold,
and silver cannot be weighed out as its price.
It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
in precious onyx or sapphire.
Gold and glass cannot equal it,
nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold.
No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;
the price of wisdom is above pearls.
The chrysolite of Ethiopia cannot compare with it,
nor can it be valued in pure gold.
‘Where then does wisdom come from?
And where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of all living,
and concealed from the birds of the air.
Abaddon and Death say,
“We have heard a rumour of it with our ears.”
‘God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.
For he looks to the ends of the earth,
and sees everything under the heavens.
When he gave to the wind its weight,
and apportioned out the waters by measure;
when he made a decree for the rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt;
then he saw it and declared it;
he established it, and searched it out.
And he said to humankind,
“Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
and to depart from evil is understanding.” ‘
In 6 years as the pastor of this church, in all the pulpit supply I did in my church when I was serving as a hospice chaplain, even back to my internship, after seminary, I have never preached a sermon on Job. I’m pretty sure that I know why. It’s because Job is hard to preach on. Even pre-eminent biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann once wrote “The book of Job is not for ‘everyday use’ among the faithful, but it is an artistic extremity that is peculiarly matched to the most extreme crises of life lived in faith.” I’m a preacher than tends to look for the everyday use scriptures. But, as the folks who compiled the Unraveled devotional note, few figures in the Bible have their lives more thoroughly and painfully unraveled than Job does. And, this is a time when lots of parts of our social fabric are being unraveled. Maybe it’s worth spending some time here. One sermon probably won’t cover it. But, it’s a start.
First, let’s see who are the players in our story. The scholar Carol Newsom calls the first couple of chapters of the book kind of a fairytale. Once up on a time, there were a man named Job and he loved God. He was devout and did everything God asked of him. One day, God’s heavenly court is meeting a God talks to a member of the court called ha Satan. That is translated to the Accuser. This is a different the figure of Satan who is the devil. This figure is more like a prosecuting attorney. In fact, this whole book is going to end up looking a bit like a trial. The Accuser with be the prosecutor, trying to entrap Job into cursing God, and Job acting as his own attorney, both challenging God and recognizing God as the judge.
God, after expressing great pride in Job, as though he were the very best student in a class, decides to allow the Accuser to play with Job’s life, taking away what is most important to him: his family, whom he loves, his possession, which give him stability, and his health, which lets him live. I think it’s this particular characterization of God that is at the core of why I don’t preach on Job very much. This is a god to let’s a good man be toyed with for a bet. This is a god who turn Job’s family over to the Accuser just to see what happens. Maybe God is confident that Job’s piety is real, that he won’t fold when times are hard. But, there is a price to be paid for the experiment: all of the people in Job’s family, Job’s own well-being. If we assume that this book is only about the nature of belief, and whether or not one can sustain belief in hard times, it seems like a pretty cruel game to play with a character.
But, that’s not all this book is about. It may be the question the Accuser is interested in, but he makes terrible choices, so we probably shouldn’t follow him. Carol Newsom, in her introduction to Job in the Women’s Bible Commentary, says that she thinks it helps to read Job like a parable that is intended to be outrageous for a reason. The goal of the outrageous story is to disorient and reorient the person reading it. This book begins by asking if a person can be devout without assuming that God will give them good things as reward for their devotion. The book reorients us towards a different question. What is the nature of God? Does God give out blessings like prizes to be won? If you are good, will God give you things? If something bad has happened to you, does that mean that you have done something wrong in God’s eye and are being punished? The first question is about the nature of humanity. The second is about God.
The moment the Accuser is allowed to harm Job’s children and slaves and animals and even to afflict Job himself with illness, though Job had never done anything but be devoted to God, we see the beginnings of the answer to the question about the nature of God. The bad things that happen to you are not a punishment from God. Job knows this in his heart. There are 28 chapters in this book where Job’s friends end up coming to the conclusion that Job must be actually not that great a guy who all these bad things wouldn’t have happened. As Walter Brueggemann describes in his commentary on Job, suffering is seen as punishment for disobedience. If Job is suffering, he must have been disobedient.
But, Job is pretty sure he’s been obedient. He says in chapter 27, verses 5-6, “I will hold fast to my righteousness, and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.” He has not been told explicitly what he has done to deserve punishment and understands himself to be faithful. He will continue to testify to his faithfulness until someone gives him an example of his behavior that merits punishment. We know that God isn’t punishing Job. Job knows that he hasn’t done anything worthy of punishment. So, what’s going on?
Dr. Newsom said that we need to pay attention to how Job imagines God to be functioning in the world. She said that Job is presuming that God will respond to him the way he would respond to the people dependent on him, his spouse, children, and the people he owns. His vision of God mirrors that the behavior of a benevolent human head of a family. Dr. Newsom says that Job expects God to be just as a human leader would be just, that God would intervene to “vindicate righteous conduct,” and that, yes, God would punish wicked behavior because those are all the things that Job would do as a paternal figure in his family. The book of Job, though, tells us that God doesn’t function like the head of a human family, even if that’s a common metaphor for God. God does something else.
Today’s scripture points to the “something else” that God does and God is. Today’s reading is a poem about God’s wisdom. It’s not clear who is saying it. I’ve seen scholars call it a poetic interlude between the parts of the book where Job is arguing with his friends about sin and punishment and where he challenges God directly to come and tell him why all this is happening. I think that this poem is the clue pointing us to what the author of the story hopes we’ll realize: humans, wise though they might be, still aren’t God. Job’s wisdom, and his friend’s wisdom, for that matter, leads them to assume that God will function just like people, especially like the men in charge of things in their families. This interlude, before God fully responds in chapters 38-42, is what can clue us in that we should be thinking about different scales of reality here. Humans have learned many great things. Humans still don’t know all the mysteries of Creation. And, that is the scale that God will invite Job to try to imagine.
Wisdom, that is God at work, is found not simply in the ideas that humanity has passed along, but also in the very foundation of life. God gave the wind it’s weight and apportioned out the waters by measure. God made a decree for the reign and a way for the thunderbolt. There is a wisdom in creation that goes beyond human ideas that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. God isn’t a big human in the sky, acting just like we do. God is a force of creation. That’s why we depart of evil, as verse 28 says. Evil is destructive, the opposite of the constructive, living force of God. Awe is a better starting point than evil for coming anywhere near understanding the wisdom of God.
God will eventually come and speak to Job from inside a whirlwind. That’s most of chapters 38-42.6. Most of what God will talk about is the awesome wonder of creation. This whole lawsuit brought up by Job will come to a complicated close. Though many of his fortunes are restored, Job never quite gets straight the answers to his questions, or, I think, a particularly compassionate response to his suffering. Dr. Newsom argues that what he does have is a new understanding of the nature of God. God is no longer that father waiting to punish his missteps, but is, instead, the power and spirit that is at the root of all life. And, maybe this is its own kind of gift. How much less shame and hurt would there be in the world if people no longer imagined all the bad things that befall them as retribution from a God who is definitely keeping score.
Maybe that is something that can carry us, as we wonder how to respond to the suffering in our own world, to a more compassionate response. God isn’t punishing the people who have lost their jobs or who have gotten sick. We don’t have to punish them either. But, we can remember that we are connected to them through God’s power at creation. And, in turning towards that connection, and responding to it, we are turning away from evil. We may not understand everything that is happening. But, we can be grounded in the majesty of Creation, and we can respond with our own goodness to it.
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Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. ‘This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,’ she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.’ So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, ‘because’, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’
We heard a little bit about this story a couple weeks ago, so we know that these women’s plans work out. The boy will be ok. Life won’t be perfect, but he will not only survive and, he will be called up for special work by God. In fact, cradled inside their plan, with the boy child, is the salvation of their whole people. But, they can’t know that yet. We only know because we’ve heard the story before. Put yourself in the place of this mother and her elder daughter. You don’t know the future. You can only base your predictions on what you are observing in the present and what you know from the past. What you are observing now is powerful people hurting children for their own gain. What you know from the past is that neighbors can be turned into enemies by those who want only to protect their own power. With those two pieces of information, they knew they had to make a plan.
Pharaoh is both afraid of the Israelites and quick to underestimate them. We learned that in the previous chapter when we read of the midwives who make up a quick lie to cover up the fact that they had been delivering babies instead of destroying them. It is obviously a lie. They say, “These Hebrew women aren’t delicate like Egyptian women. They just push those babies right out before we get there. There is no time to enact harm to them without the mothers knowing.” Only someone who is fully committed to both hating a people while also not learning anything about them would believe such a story. Dr. Wil Gafney notes in her book Womanist Midrash, when the midwives are able to use the Pharaoh’s own cultural biases against him, they show us that the Pharaoh is not actually all powerful. With a solid plan, a little luck, and some divine guidance, you can defeat him. Dr. Gafney calls the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, the “first deliverers in the book of deliverance.” We are grateful that set salvation in motion.
The woman who makes the plan to save be baby isn’t initially named in this story. Neither is her husband. We are just told that they come from the tribe of Levi. If we keep reading, we learn later in the book of Exodus that her name is Jochebed. The first part of her name, the “Yo” is part of the Hebrews name for God. Dr. Gafney translates her name as “the honor or weightiness of God.” She also explains that the book of Numbers clarifies that Jochebed is not just from the tribe of Levi, but is actually Levi’s daughter. Levi was Joseph’s brother, one of the ones who sold him into slavery... one of the one’s who had to become a refugee in Egypt during a famine... one who eventually reconciled with his brother. Jochebed, because she was born in Egypt, would have experienced nearly the entire downward spiral of the relationships between her people and the Egyptians. Her lifetime would be spent experienced her people’s increased oppression and enslavement.
When the powerful are trying to destroy you, any act of creation is an act of resistance. Dr. Gafney reminds us of that. She says that the decision to build a family in the midst of Pharaoh’s destruction is a sign of radical and defiant hopefulness. She would not let the Pharaoh decide the size and nature of her family. She has a least two other children before the boy she will save in this story. They were probably born before the Pharaoh’s most recent calls for genocide. But, still, it would not have been easy to keep them safe. And, the one who seems to be her oldest, Miriam, will work with her to save the youngest. Great good can happen when generations work together.
Remember that part of the creation stories back in Genesis where God looked at creation at said, “it is good.” Well, that appears to be what Jochebed said when she saw her youngest son. Dr. Gafney points this out in her commentary. Jochebed saw him and said, this is a fine boy. And, she committed to saving him. She doesn’t even talk to her husband about it. Did you notice that? He’s not anywhere in this part of the story. She just does it. She hides him for three months. But, there comes a point when she can hide him no longer. So, she develops a plan. It is a risky plan, probably not one she would try had she more resources. But, she uses what she has: the baskets they carry every day, the process by which to make it water-proof, another child who can keep watch, and a river, and probably confidence in the honor of God. So, she puts the child in the basket and her faith in whomever finds him.
The daughter of the tyrant has the opportunity to choose compassion where he has only chosen destruction. She knows full well that her father had decided that Hebrew boys were to die. She also knows that the daughters of pharaohs have more leeway than the slaves of pharaohs. We don’t know much about her. We don’t know if she bristled against her father’s genocidal decrees or if she happily made use of the wealth his oppressive tactics had helped him amass. What we do know is, in the moment she saw this fine boy in her slave’s hands, she decided to help him.
Miriam is smart like her mom and offers to help the princess. She says, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” The princess says yes. And, of course Miriam goes to find their own mother and bring her to tend to the child. The princess will even pay her to care for her own son! As Lisle Gwynn Garrity said in the Unraveled devotional entry for this scripture, this is not a perfect solution to this family’s problem. What would have been perfect would have been for the Pharaoh to lift the killing decree and apologize, release the enslaved with reparations, and step down from power, turning the country over to the power of the people. What would have better would have been that the boy, named Moses, had been able to stay with his parents. But, there is a history of members of this family, starting with Jochebed’s uncle Joseph, being able to build something good with what other’s had intended for evil. And, God would do great good with Moses, who was raised in the household of the Pharaoh.
Jochebed knew that would only have so much time with her fine son. Dr. Gafney imagines that she made the most of it. I think she probably did, too. Here’s the scene as Dr. Gafney imagines that it could have been: Jochebed tells her son stories of their people and sings them the songs that Hebrew mothers sing to their children. The princess knows that this is the boy’s biological mother and allows them this time together. She nurses her son for as long as she can, maybe 5 years, taking as much time as she can so that he knows who he is and whose he is. Through his foster mother’s good will and his biological mother’s hard work, Moses is able to know is sister Miriam and his brother Aaron, the two who will become coworkers in liberation with him. And, he knows his father. Even as he benefits from being the Pharaoh's adopted grandson, he will know that he is Hebrew. He will be ready, though afraid, when the Hebrew God speaks to him. And, he won’t believe the lies that his people deserve oppression. And, that will be the first step to freedom.
I don’t know if you are feeling like Jochebed, making the best plan you can in a bad situation, or if you are Miriam, following the words of a wise leader. I don’t know if you are the princess, using your power to save one who did nothing to deserve danger or Moses, the one who has been saved. What I do know is that this story shows us that, as Lisle Gwen Garrity says, “God doesn’t need perfection to achieve liberation.” What God does need is you, being as brave as you can be, using all the tools that you have, to walk down to the water and find the life that is hidden there. May we follow in Jochebed’s defiant and hopeful footsteps.
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When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘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.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Yes, Christ is Risen. But, now what? That’s what I think of when I read Thomas’ story. Christ is risen. Mary Magdalene had preached a testimony of what she had seen. Jesus the Christ had risen and he had appeared to her at the empty tomb. Now what? What comes next? This reading, the one that usually comes a couple Sundays after Easter, shows us what can happen once we move from the empty tomb back into the world. Do we follow the directions we received from the Divine? Do we even tell anybody? Mary did what Jesus asked. She told the disciples. What will the rest of the disciples do?
Thomas is often remembered as the Doubter. After how horrible his last week had been, why wouldn't he have questions? Thomas was not being hard-headed. He was being realistic, especially after everything that had happened. A little doubt makes sense in times such as these. In fact, all the disciples seem to be doubting a bit. Mary had told them that she had encountered a resurrected Jesus. And, yet, scripture tells us that their response was to remain in hiding. This might also being reasonable. The Roman state had just murdered Jesus. They didn’t know if they would be next. All of their plans had fallen apart. Hiding seemed like the best option for the moment, even though Mary’s testimony could have given them a little hope, had they actually trusted her. As they huddled together, not knowing what their next steps should be, the Gospel of John tell us that Jesus would slide in past all the barriers they created to keep themselves safe and offer them peace.
Now, if you are someone who doesn't think people of faith should need physical proof of the resurrection, Jesus’ first action might surprise you. He doesn't fuss at his followers for not believing Mary. Instead, he holds out his torn hands and offers his scarred side as proof of who he is. This is a great kindness on his part... showing them what he knows they will need to believe. And, just like Mary before them, when the disciples see Jesus and his wounds, they believe. He then offers them a second great gift. He commissions them to bring about the Reign of God. Mirroring the lovely imagery of the creation story in Genesis 2, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on them, enlivening their frightened hearts. Surely, this, too is a bit of resurrection for those petrified people.
Thomas, though, missed the whole thing. He was apparently the only one brave enough to leave the house. Despite of how we often think of him, until this point, Thomas has been portrayed as a brave and faithful disciple. Back when Lazarus died, it was Thomas who said they should follow Jesus and travel to help him, even if it was dangerous. When those who have been so afraid report that they have seen Jesus, he simply asks for the same kind of proof they have received. He states, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hands in his side, I will not believe.” With these few words, Thomas became known as a doubter and a counter-example of faith of generations of Christians. I would argue, not for the first time, to characterize him as anything other than faithful, simply because he wanted the same proof everyone else got, seems unfair. Not one other person in the whole story believed without seeing. Why does Thomas get called a doubter? Why should he be expected to need any less confirmation than anybody else? He, like the disciples before him, needed a little more assurance than the excited words that his compatriots could offer. He needed some evidence that his hope wasn't unfounded. There was too much at stake to go without it.
It would take a week for him to receive the evidence he needed. That scene in this reading is truly a scene of grace. Once again, we read that Jesus slides past all their defenses and enters the room. Were they still locked up in fear or was this just where they lived now? It must not matter. What does matter is that once again, Jesus offers the ones who love him a reason to trust that they can go on without him. And, this time, he gives Thomas proof. He offers up his wounds, saying, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand put it in my side." Many translations of this passage have Jesus telling Thomas "Do not doubt." I have learned from scholars who know Greek better than I do that a better translation could be "Do not be empty of faith." Jesus’ ministry has always been marked by abundance. More wine when the wine is gone. More food when there seems only a little bit. More life when there is death. Of course, he would refill faith. In Christ and with Christ, there is enough... more than enough, in fact. If proof is what Thomas needs to renew his abundant faith, then, proof is what Jesus will provide. Once again, we see a new bit of Resurrection.
Jesus’ next few words to Thomas are often considered a rebuke. He said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This is such an interesting response. Up to this point, everyone in the story that we know believes in the Resurrection has actually seen it. First Mary Magdalene, then the 10 disciples, then Thomas. Seeing seems to be a prerequisite to believing. I think these words about believing without seeing are better understood as a challenge. After all, Mary, Thomas, and the 10, had Jesus' risen body to help them believe. That is very solid proof that that which they believe is real. But, no one who believes after them would have that same level of evidence. What are the rest of the believers to do when they need proof... when they need their faith refilled? If you can't see Christ's body and feel Christ's wounds, how can you believe? As the disciples go on to preach about the Resurrection, they are going to have to wrestle with these very questions. They have to start making a plan.
The beginning of this plan is in the peace that Jesus carried into the room with the fearful disciples. Remember the part when Jesus first slid in through the locked door and found the disciples? The second thing he did when he saw them was breathe the Holy Spirit onto them. This breathing life into things is an important part of scripture. Scholars remind us that this is a very similar scene to the first descriptions of creation in the book of Genesis where God took a lump of mud and loved it and breathed life into it, creating humanity. How would this story change for us if we took it not as a critique of doubt but as a reminder of the act of creation? People will need to see something to prove to them that resurrection is possible. What if Jesus created the proof the disciples would need in that act of breathing peace?
What if Thomas' story is best understood not as a critique of doubt but as the creation of a new body of proof...the Body of Christ... the church and all those who seek to follow Jesus can see when they need help believing in the resurrection. Just as God once breathed life into clay, Jesus breathed new life into his disciples. When he revived them, they went forth and found new followers of Christ. Had these 11 not been willing to leave their homes and continue Christ's work, we would not be here. What this story teaches us is that while we may not have Jesus’ own body here in front of us, we most certainly have the Body of Christ and we are still blessed by the proof that their faith offered.
If we are the on-going Body of Christ in the world, we are being called to offer up evidence of the resurrection. We can offer our bodies and ourselves, our wounds and our great joys, as proof of the Resurrection. You can see the Resurrection all over the place in this church, even as we are spread out across several towns and states. It is in the grief that you are so willing to offer up and share with one another during prayer. It is in the grace that you show visitors and those in need who call looking for help. It is in your willingness to share your stories of how you came to faith and came to this faith community. It is even in our church council meetings where everyone is working together to discern just how we will be church in this era of COVID-19. I suspect that even though we don’t have Jesus’ actual body right here with us, we can feel the Body of Christ right here, right now. Jesus' breathed new life into his disciples and we have inherited that new life from them. We can continue to carry that new life with us into whatever comes next. Seeing is believing in this text. I pray that you can see Christ here, as we worship over the internet, and feel Christ with us, as we learn, once again, how to live a new life.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.