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"Terms of Endearment"
1 John 1:1-2:2
April 15, 2012
As is completely obvious to all of us, last Sunday has a name. We call it "Easter," and we all know it. There might be some uncertainty when Easter is, because it's not the same date each year, like Christmas is, or the same day within a particular month, like Thanksgiving is. But we all know what the name of that special day is. "Easter" is it's name, and we all know that.
Well, today has a name, too. It's called "Doubting Thomas Sunday." Well, that's what some people call the Sunday after Easter. Yeah, kind of a strange name, isn't it? What were they thinking, to give this name, "Doubting Thomas Sunday," to this day when we're still feeling the celebration of Easter. What a downer, to allow a note of doubt to intrude on our joyful Easter song. But for some reason, it's been thought a good idea by some worship planners to have us read the part of the Gospel of John that tells about Thomas, his doubts, and his coming to faith.
Actually, I don't think this is so odd. I think there is great wisdom in it, that we would be asked to think about Thomas in the light of Easter, of doubt in the midst of faith, of uncertainty in the midst of joy. Because I think that Thomas has something to tell us, something necessary in the light of Easter joy, something that will, God willing, both stretch us and comfort us, we who in so many ways are ready for Thomas' message.
Because, let's be clear, Easter Sunday is not attended only by those of complete and unwavering faith. People of less-than-solid faith attend on Easter, people whose acceptance of the empty tomb is uncertain and whose commitment to the risen Lord Jesus is unsure ...and, of course, we are among them.
Yes, we surely are: the likewise doubtful, the likewise uncertain and unsure, the likewise less-than-committed. I dare say that a number of us here, on this Sunday after Easter, do not possess complete faith. We secretly harbor our uncertainties and our doubts, even in the midst of Easter joy.
It may cause us some worry and concern that we have our moments of doubt. And perhaps we wonder, at times, whether we are being hypocrites for affirming with our lips a faith that is not, we think, so firmly lodged in our hearts.
It is for these reasons that I think that Thomas is our friend, that his struggles are not so strange to us, that his story is one we need to hear and from which we can learn much.
Thomas was not there on that first Easter Sunday. This is one of those places where I want scripture to say more. Where was Thomas? We call him "Doubting Thomas," but maybe we should call him "Tardy Thomas," or "Lazy Thomas," or "Forgetful Thomas," or "Thomas the Easily Distracted" or "Thomas the Oversleeper." Any of these might be fitting names for Thomas, as he might have overslept, or he might have gotten lost, or he might have misplaced his car keys, or maybe he got talking with his neighbor that day and lost track of time. But we'll never know, because his reason for not being with the other disciples is never told. Of all the many reasons why he might not have been there, none are judged to be important enough to relate.
For whatever reason, Thomas wasn't there with the other disciples that Sunday after Jesus died. They were all together, hiding out in the room where Jesus had had his last supper with them. They were all huddled together, fearfully avoiding all contact with those who might decide that they deserved the same fate as their Lord. All of them were in that room behind locked doors, letting in only those with the right password -- all, that is, except for Thomas.
And then, as those ten disciples met in fear, the unexpected happened. Jesus stood among them: not a ghost, not a figment of their imaginations, not a manifestation of their hopes, not a shared memory lifted to the status of a shared vision, but the real Jesus, alive, whole, not necessarily invited but welcome all the same, speaking with them, blessing them. "Peace be with you."
It is after Jesus leaves that Thomas finally arrives. Finally! Well, talk about being late to the party. The other disciples are all excited, which is quite a change from how Thomas last saw them, all fearful and in hiding and stuff. And then they bring him up to speed on the latest. Well, they tried. They told Thomas that they had seen Jesus; they told him how he had come to them in that room, how he blessed them, showed them his hands and side where he had been wounded.
Yes, they tried. But he wasn't buying it. "Yeah, right," he seems to say. "Yeah, right."
Well, he does leave a little room open for change, a doorway through which his acceptance of this improbable tale of theirs might walk. But it's not much of an opening, as it is hedged with conditionals and concludes with a negative: "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." So there.
That's quite a statement. And with it Thomas sets the terms under which he would accept what his friends were telling him. He was laying out his conditions that, if satisfied, would mean he would believe. If he was going to accept, if he was going to believe that the loving Lord, so dear to him, was truly alive, then these were his terms.
Clearly, Thomas didn't really think this was going to happen. He set these terms, but they were terms that he thought were not at all likely to be fulfilled. They were conditions he did not at all expect to be satisfied. He laid them down before his friends like an unanswerable challenge.
One week later he had his answer.
They were all together, just as before, only this time Thomas hadn't slept in. Nor had he forgotten to set his watch. He hadn't taken a wrong turn or missed the exit. Nope, he avoided all those missteps that could have made him late. He was there, for once, with his fellow disciples as they gathered like they had before. Just as before, they met in hiding. Just as before, the doors were locked, for they couldn't be quite sure they were safe. And, just as before, they suddenly found Jesus standing there with them. Their Lord appears, not necessarily invited but welcome all the same, blessing them with the same greeting as before. "Peace be with you."
And then he looks at Thomas. Uh oh. Well, because, really, what else would he be thinking? He had laid down all these conditions and dictated all these terms, a whole lot of noise to say, really, that he didn't believe his friends, didn't believe that they had seen Jesus. And now Jesus was here, standing right before him, not really invited yet welcome all the same.
Jesus calls Thomas over. "Here ya go, Thomas. Poke around all you want. My hands, my side, go ahead and investigate them. That's what you wanted, isn't it? Aren't these the terms you set for belief?"
But at this point Thomas doesn't need any convincing. His terms and conditions are quite irrelevant. Jesus was here; there was no denying it, and there was nothing to require. All that was left was for Thomas to utter those simple words, a confession of faith: "My Lord and my God!" -- words that expressed the final removal of his futile conditions and terms.
For Jesus is truly the One who has the power, the right, the authority, and the invincible love to show up, to bless, to make himself welcome, to be right at home, indeed, to create the endearing and enduring relationship with his disciples. No one but he can set the terms and conditions for an abiding relationship with him that even death can't destroy. The terms of endearment are his, and his alone, to set and to fulfill.
Thomas had thought that he would set the terms. He learned in time, on that Sunday after Easter, that he could not set them, not really. He learned, even more, that any terms he might set were irrelevant. For Thomas, it all was turned around: Jesus came to him and established the faith that Thomas did not have. Jesus showed up, uninvited yet welcome all the same, and blessed him into believing. Jesus set the terms of endearment, the conditions by which love and joy would bloom in Thomas, whose own terms were quickly forgotten.
I believe that Thomas is an important example to us. Because Thomas is a lot like many people when it comes to faith in Jesus. For there is so much condition-setting that goes on, and usually, just as with Thomas, the conditions are given with no expectation that they will be met. They're given like Thomas' aggressive challenge to his friends, a brusque statement of supposed principle, an "I dare ya!" to any who would try to prove him wrong.
We see this in several ways.
There are people who want all their questions answered satisfactorily before they believe. But what is more likely is that they don't know what the really important questions are, the questions they won't know unless and until the Lord shows them these questions, which are then best asked and pursued in faith.
And there are people who want first to have a certain feeling in their hearts. But very often the way that Jesus works in the hearts of believers is that the decisive feeling is quite unexpected, different from what the person thought was needed.
And there are people who think that they need to be completely free of doubt before they believe in Jesus. But Jesus creates the belief, setting his own terms of endearment, and blesses the doubter who believes even in the midst of uncertainty and even doubt.
I'm not saying that in order to believe in Jesus you have to sacrifice your mind and give up your desire that things makes sense. For some of us, that would be like asking us to give up breathing! And there certainly are examples of Christians coming to faith in part because their search for reasons as well as answers to their questions were given some helpful attention. They were shown the rational aspects of Christian faith, or they were given some help in understanding how science and theology could be in conversation with each other But in the end, all of them would say that they didn't have everything answered, that there still were open questions with which they had to struggle, and yet, that was okay, because God had given them the needed faith that their remaining questions could not themselves create. From the perspective of faith, they could say that it was God who finally set the terms of belief and satisfied these terms, bringing these people to that place where their own rationality and term-setting and condition-making could never bring them, just as it was for Thomas.
But there's another thing about Thomas I think we should notice, and from which we can learn. And although it may seem so, it is no small thing. Simply put, it is this: Thomas was there, with them, his friends and fellow disciples. He didn't stay away because of his doubts. He didn't keep his distance. No, he faithfully stayed with the faith-filled, and in his disbelief he remained with the believing.
How different Thomas is from many people today, people we know and love; perhaps we are such people. So often when people have doubts about Jesus Christ, they stay away from church. They set the terms of endearment, terms that are very strict and high but which serve to lock in and enslave.
They don't come to church because they have doubts.
They don't come because they feel different.
They don't come because they've been hurt.
They don't come because they haven't come in a while, so they're embarrassed, or they think they'll be judged.
They don't come because they feel guilty about something they've done.
I've heard all these reasons before. And I understand them. Believe me, I do. Perhaps you have thought these things. Maybe it is not simply friends or loved ones who have these thoughts, but you yourself have had them. Maybe you're struggling with them right now.
But my sympathy for these thoughts and feelings is set in perspective by my recollection of Thomas. Because he showed up. He didn't stay away, even though he could not yet share in Easter joy with his friends. He was there, even though he likely was a stranger to their feelings. He was with them in their worship, even as he himself could not yet engage in worship. He did not let his alienation keep him away, but he showed up. He demonstrated faithfulness even as faith was not yet his own, but would soon be given to him. And in this faithfulness, he was soon blessed. "Peace be with you."
Because of Thomas, I want to encourage all who struggle with questions of faith not to stay away from the community of faith, but to strive to be more like Thomas, who showed up, who didn't stay away, who was blessed into faith from within the midst of his doubt, who found the terms of endearment set by his Lord overriding his own terms with resurrection love.
Of course, I need your help in offering such encouragement. After all, you are here, and you also have contact I do not have with those who struggle, and so you can help me in extending that comforting and stretching blessing from Thomas to those who are not here.
The Lord has endeared us to himself, made us his own, and given us blessing and peace. He whom we have not necessarily invited but who is welcome all the same stands among us, even in our doubting, even in our feeble and futile condition-setting, and he loves us. So, let us then give ourselves to this task, of sharing with others the love that has been given to us.
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