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Sunday After Easter: Coming Late to the Party

 John 20:19-31

It's party time! This is not the season of the year when we normally think of parties. Parties we associate with Christmas or New Year, or celebrating an event like a wedding or retirement.

Yet in the lives of followers of Christ, this is the party season; when people have said their loudest, sternest, clearest "No," God says, "Yes." At Golgotha, people did their best to say "No" to God with great forcefulness.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, God -- with greater forcefulness -- said "Yes"!
Nobody expected that.
Pilate said "No" in his hall of judgment, hastily washing his hands. The Roman army said "No" with its bloody, public execution. Custom said "No" with its borrowed grave, sealed with a huge stone rolled in front of it.
The women came to the grave, but their word was a sad "No" because they came only to embalm the body. Peter and John later ran back to the tomb, but that was because earlier they had gone away, given up, withdrawn, said "No" with their feelings.
Two on the Emmaus road had said "no" and left town, the garden, the grave. They had hoped Jesus was the one but they left town with a disappointed "No" on their lips.
In the upper room, the rest of the group gathered, hiding out in fear and grief. Jesus was gone; they would be next. Theirs was a terrified "No." Unanimously -- among friend and foe alike -- the word of the hour was "No."
So when it happened -- God's "Yes" -- nobody was sitting by the graveside, standing by the rock, or even hiding nearby in the bushes. And God -- as He often does because of our dullness and disbelief -- came up on their blind side. Hope slipped in and surprised them.
No wonder Easter is the high-water mark of the Christian year. No wonder churches are crowded Easter Sunday. What a reason to celebrate! What a party!
And look at the guest list! God is so extravagant as to invite everybody to the party. You would think God would be a bit more selective, but we are evidence that God will invite anybody.
The party was last week. That was Easter. The pews aren't nearly as full today. Resurrection, the party day, has come and gone.
Have you ever been late for a party? I don't like to be late for a party because I miss out on part of the fun. I have trouble catching up with everyone emotionally. Someone makes a reference to a previous statement. Everyone laughs but me. I don't get the humor because I was late.
Today is like coming late to the party. We recall some of the excitement of last week, but we are missing the enthusiasm, the swell of emotion, the elation of a sanctuary filled with worshipers. This is identified as Low Sunday on the Christian calendar. It is low Sunday emotionally and numerically. We might not notice the numerical low so readily if it were not for what happened last Sunday.
One of the early disciples of Christ can help us with our journey today. Thomas came late to the party. He missed Easter by a week.
All the others were in the upper room when Christ stood among them. He blessed them with Shalom ("peace be with you"), commissioned them with His own ministry ("as the Father has sent me, so send I you"), and equipped them with His abiding presence ("receive the Holy Spirit").
They really had a party, but Thomas missed it because he wasn't there. Nobody knows where Thomas was.
Where do you think he was? Was he off somewhere caught up in shock and grief, wanting and needing to be alone? Was he having a cup of coffee? Had he gone to the park to sit and feed the pigeons? Or was he visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry?
There is no way to know where he was. We are only told where he was not. Thomas was not locked up in fear with the other disciples in the upper room.
Our tendency is to berate Thomas for being absent. We berate him because there have been times when we have been late or absent and missed something important. We berate Thomas because he represents all those people we think should be here but aren't.
We berate him because when he was told about the resurrection he refused to believe it. We consider that incredible! Why wouldn't he believe what the others told him? Of course Thomas was no different from the other ten apostles. When the women told them, they thought what the women said was nonsense and they did not believe them (Luke 24:11). Why don't we berate the other ten?
We know so very little about Thomas. Actually, we don't even know his name. He is known by a characteristic. He was a twin. That is what Thomas means in Aramaic, so he is identified simply as the twin.
He is listed in the middle of the twelve in all four Gospels. Whether that means he always was in the middle of things or that he was neither the stronger nor the weaker of the twelve, there is no way to discern.
His interactions with others give some clue of what Thomas was like. When Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem, all of the disciples attempted to dissuade Him from going into the lion's den in Jerusalem, all except Thomas. It was Thomas who said, "Let us go along with the Teacher, so that we may die with him" (John 11:16).
Does that statement express sad resignation or loyal commitment? Since we do not have a recording of Thomas' voice, we cannot discern his inflection and emphasis. If he were expressing loyal commitment, he later abandoned his loyalty because he, like the rest, scattered in the face of Jesus' execution.
During the last meal Jesus ate with His disciples, He said that He was going away and they knew the way to go where He was going. Well, maybe the rest of them knew the way but Thomas didn't and he was willing to admit it. He even admitted he didn't have the foggiest idea where Jesus was going, much less how to get there.
Thomas was a person of integrity. Thomas raised tough questions, the kind that made everyone around nervous because no one knew the answers. None of them thought you ought to admit you did not know the answers; none of them but Thomas.
Thomas refused to silence the integrity of his mind. Faith and reason would be joined for Thomas or he would know the reasons why not. This type of integrity is essential for emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual health. There are plenty of folks around who clearly indicate that when it comes to matters religious, don't think -- just believe. Thomas was one who said that faith was a matter of both the heart and the head. Failure to integrate faith and reason was a breach of integrity for Thomas.
Boris Pasternak wrote in Doctor Zhivago,
Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what brings nothing but misfortune. Our nervous system isn't just a fiction; it's a part of our physical body, and our soul exists in space, and is inside us, like the teeth in our mouth. It can't be forever violated with impunity.
It is a sad picture when a person is dishonest with himself and others by struggling to separate faith and reason -- seeking to please others by saying what is not believed and acting on that about which he is not convicted. Health is ruined -- physically and spiritually. Thomas refused to take that path because he was a person of honesty.
Thomas also was a person of doubt. He was a realist. His world left no room for resurrection. When a person was dead, he was dead. He had seen Jesus die and he would not settle for any hear-say comments or second-hand faith. These were an inadequate foundation for his belief.
In the midst of his doubt Thomas did not put down the belief of others or attempt to force his doubts onto them. When the disciples told Thomas that Christ was alive, he did not say, "You're crazy. Surely you don't really believe that." Neither did he say, "I'll never believe such a tale as that." Rather Thomas responded, "I won't believe this story until I have had first-hand experience by seeing the scars and putting my finger in those scarred hands and putting my hand in that wounded side."
No person's faith can rest on another person's experience. We benefit from knowing about the journeys of others and what routes they have taken in their development of faith. We appreciate and are strengthened by comparisons and contrasts, by similarities and by experiences completely foreign to us. But we cannot adopt someone else's faith.
People have to move beyond the faith of their parents, teachers, and friends to a faith that is theirs. Otherwise all they have is hand-me-down religion, and hand-me-down religion won't survive the first serious crisis or test it faces.
Second-hand religion has little, if any, genuine faith in it, because it just accepts what is handed down without question. Second-hand religion doesn't usually survive the first serious grief, the first major temptation, or the first year of college. Some don't have much religion to lose, and what some have isn't worth keeping because it really isn't theirs.
When the disciples told Thomas about the resurrection, I'm sure there was part of Thomas that wanted to say, "I believe." After all, ten close friends could not possibly be wrong, could they? But Thomas could not say honestly, "I believe." What he could not say honestly he would not say, and he would not fake it.
Martin Buber observed, "The atheist staring out from his attic window is often nearer to God than the believer caught up in his own fake image of God." In this same direction Paul Schilling commented, "The serious atheist who wrestles with ultimate questions is likely to contribute more to intelligent understanding of both God and man than the pious believer who placidly accepts prevailing views."
Many within Christianity have been suspicious of inquiries which might upset the supposedly revealed truths of the church. Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin have been opposed and denounced by many within the church. Such attitudes prompted Arnulf Overland to observe: "The believer is not supposed to think, but to believe!"
Thomas was a person of honesty and a person of doubt. He refused to say he believed when he didn't. Please notice there is no record of coercion by other disciples to force Thomas to believe or tell him he had to believe. There also is no indication that refusal to believe Christ had been resurrected was a threat to the cohesiveness of the group or that any of the disciples rejected Thomas and said, "Well, I don't think we can relate to you or permit you to be a part of our group unless you believe in the resurrection."
Thomas, and I think the other disciples, realized that no one's faith can rest on another person's experience. His faith in God had to have first-hand experience. This understanding caused another Thomas many years later, Thomas Carlyle, to comment, "What this parish needs is what every parish needs, a (person) who knows God at more than second hand."
Thomas was a person of honesty, a person of doubt, and a person of commitment. Thomas had been straight-forward with his observations and honest doubt. He needed some first-hand proof of the resurrection. I wonder what his immediate reaction was a week later when Jesus appeared with the disciples and invited Thomas to touch His scars.
Thomas must have said, "How did you know I said that?" Suddenly, Thomas no longer needed any proofs. Without touching Jesus at all, Thomas exclaimed, "My Lord and my God." Thomas now had faith.
Thomas had come late to the party, but he caught up in a hurry. "My Lord" would have been a sufficient address for Jesus -- a magnificent address really. But Thomas spoke to Jesus as Israel had spoken to Yahweh -- "My Lord and my God." These are the last words of a disciple recorded by John. Thomas had said all that there is to say. We often have berated Thomas -- called him Doubting Thomas. Why have we not given equal time to the leap of faith expressed in his confession and commitment and called him Believing Thomas?
In the presence of Christ, Thomas' faith was made whole. Seeing was not believing. Commitment came apart from verified proof. Doubt dissolved and assurance emerged. The honesty of Thomas will still intact. His confession was a statement of fact.
John closed this segment of scripture this way, "These have been written in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that through your faith in Him you may have life." John is talking about the readers of his gospel -- us. The Bible is intended to produce in us the kind of faith that emerged from Thomas.
This kind of faith begins with honesty. Everything is on the table. Faith and reason learn to work together. No questions are dodged, no convictions silenced. If doubts arise, so be it. Doubt can be beneficial. As someone has said, "Doubt is the mother of faith."
You may have come to genuine, first-hand faith in the resurrected Christ in another way. Great! Celebrate! Maybe Mary Magdalene or Peter or some other is the model for you. But for me, Thomas is a partner and brother in the faith.
If you still need to come to faith in the risen Lord, don't quit, don't give up. So you have doubts and questions. So you are struggling with reconciling faith and reason. I commend Thomas to you. He is the patron saint for all of us who would come late to the party, but still we come.
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