Sunday, April 15, 2007

Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

This Sunday goes by a number of different names. It is the Octave, which comes from the fact that it is the eighth day of Easter. In days gone by, the party lasted eight days, so the Sunday after Easter was as important as the Sunday of Easter. It is a time of joy and celebration, of laughter and good times. After the forty days of Lent, the Octave (both the week and the last day) was a time to enjoy good food.

It is also called "Low Sunday." Our modern understanding of this might be different than was intended. Though there is uncertainty about the meaning of "Low Sunday" for most churches today it means that it a Sunday with very poor attendance. Many people are exhausted after the Holy Week observances, having participated in up to a dozen different services. For pastors, the Second Sunday of Easter is often a day they take off, to rest and recover. Since the pastor is away, some folk see this as a day they can miss. It is possible that the word "low" in "Low Sunday" is a corruption of the Latin word "Laudes" which means praise. As in the Octave, it is a day of rejoicing and praise to God for the work He has done in and through Jesus Christ.

The day is also known as Quasimodo Sunday. We might wonder why the Sunday after Easter would be named after a character in the Victor Hugo novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." In reality, the character was given the name Quasimodo because he was left on the steps of Notre Dame on the Second Sunday of Easter. The words "quasi modo" in Latin mean "in the manner of new born babes." The Second Sunday of Easter may have been called Quasimodo Sunday because the new Christians who had been baptized at the Easter Vigil would have worn their baptismal robes for the Octave, and on this eighth day they were officially Christian newborns in the faith.

It is also known as St. Thomas Sunday. The reason for this is obvious because we always hear the story of Thomas, the doubter and believer, on the Second Sunday of Easter. In all these names we see a general theme faith in Christ and joy in God's good work.

We tend to think of Thomas as "Doubting Thomas," yet in the end Thomas discovers his faith. His faith is ultimately based not on what the disciples tell him, but on his own personal experience with Christ. Jesus reveals himself to Thomas just as He had revealed Himself to the others. We tend to think negatively about Thomas because it seems like he should have believed based on the reports given. So far in John's telling of the Easter story, Mary discovered the empty tomb and told the disciples. Peter and John saw that she was right the tomb was empty. Then Mary, weeping in the garden, met the risen Lord Jesus. She went to the disciples with the news, "I have seen the Lord!"

On the evening of that first day, the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, afraid of what might happen to them. Jesus appeared before them and said "Peace be with you." He identified Himself with peace peace of heart, peace of mind. "Do not be afraid." Why were they afraid? They were certainly afraid of the leaders both Roman and Jewish. What had they done with the body? They may have believed Mary, we do not know. All we know is that they were afraid. When Jesus appeared, they may have been afraid of Him. After all, He appeared out of nowhere. The doors were locked; there was no way He could get in. To their frightened and superstitious minds, Jesus might have been a ghost or spirit.

"Peace be with you" He said, showed them His wounds and they were glad. He revealed Himself in a way that they could identify. They knew that it was Jesus, not some ghost or spirit that appeared to be Him. The reports of Mary, the empty tomb, were all becoming clear. Jesus' body was not stolen, He was alive and he was amongst them.

Jesus did not wait long to tell them the purpose of His visit. "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." They were not going to keep this news to themselves. The message of Jesus' resurrection was a story that needed to be passed along to others. The disciples did just that. The next time they saw Thomas, they repeated the words of Mary, "We have seen the Lord!" Now, Thomas has had the testimony of Mary, the empty tomb and the disciples. Yet, he still refused to believe until he saw the wounds of Christ for himself.

A week later, Thomas was given his revelation. Jesus appeared before them again and said "Peace be with you." Then He immediately addressed Thomas. He told Thomas to see His wounds, to touch His side. "Stop doubting and believe." This is where we get the idea that Thomas was a doubter. Yet, the Greek does not necessarily translate "doubt." Doubt is not the opposite of faith. As a matter of fact, doubt often leads to a deeper, more real faith. The opposite of faith is indifference, apathy, unbelief. Doubt makes a person seek understanding and to pursue answers to their questions.

Thomas was not a doubter. He refused to believe the words of the disciples. "Until I see for myself, I will not believe." This refusal could potentially have led to something more terrible, a road of rejection of the Gospel, of Christ and of God.

Jesus' answer to Thomas's insistence for proof was, "Do not become unbelieving, but believing." It was not about what Thomas was at that moment, but rather about what he was to become. Thomas could not believe, not as the other disciples already believed, for he did not experience the breath of God which was the Holy Spirit. Jesus came to wish Thomas peace, just as He had for the others. Belief faith is not something that can happen by the power of the human will or be received with some physical or tangible proof. Faith belief comes by the power of God. It is by His hand that we can have faith and by His power that we share that faith.

That's what we see in the passages from Acts and Revelation. Peter answered the accusations of the leaders with the answer, "We must obey God rather than any human authority." The message of Jesus comes not from some human effort, but from the Lord God Almighty. John introduces his book of Revelation with the same theme God is the Alpha and Omega, who is and who was and who is to come. Everything even faith rests in His hands.

However, we see in these stories that we are called to be active participants in the sharing of faith. Like the disciples, like Peter, like John, we are called to live in praise and thanksgiving to God for His good work in Jesus Christ. We are called to share the message of God's grace, to take forgiveness into the world. For the disciples, this commission was clear by the power of the Holy Spirit, if they forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. It was not very long before they had to live this Thomas refused to believe them when they proclaimed to him the good news. Could they forgive his unbelief?

That's what we are called to do to give forgiveness to those who won't believe our words. Sharing the message of Jesus with people who refuse to believe is heartbreaking. We want them to experience the grace of God as we have experienced it. We want them to rejoice in God's incredible gift, to believe that Jesus lives and that He is active in the world. We want them to accept God's mercy and to praise God with us. Too many require proof. "Until I see for myself, I will not believe," they say, just like Thomas. Thankfully, God is active in His world and He does continue to reveal Himself to people who insist on seeing His wounds. He revealed Himself to Mary, to the disciples, to Thomas and to John. And He continues to reveal Himself to us today.

We, like those who saw Jesus after the resurrection, experience God in very personal and real ways. Will we meet Him in the garden like Mary? Will we see Him, like they did in that locked room? Will we have a vision of heaven like John? Probably not. However, we do experience the Living Christ when we gather together with other Christians, when we receive the sacraments and when we use our gifts to serve others. In that way we experience God and become believing. It is a daily growing, not a once and done event. Each time we read the scriptures, each time we pray, each time we gather for worship we continue to become believing until one day when we will be in the eternal presence of God. And just as those first disciples were sent, we too are sent into the world to carry God's forgiveness to others.

Peter tells the priests, "We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him." Are we witnesses? Were we there? Did we see Jesus in that garden or locked room? No, we weren't witnesses in that time or that place, but we are witnesses because God, the Holy Spirit is with us. When Jesus showed Thomas His wounds, Thomas answered, "My Lord and my God." He answered with a greater faith, a faith built on experience with Christ. He confessed faith in not only the presence of Jesus, but in the reality of who He is our Lord and our God. His doubt led him to seek to know more, to experience Jesus as the others had experienced His presence.

Yet, Jesus said to Thomas and the other disciples "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." We are those blessed ones, the ones who have believed but have not seen. Have we done this by our own power? Of course not. We believe because God gave us faith, because God has given us the Holy Spirit.

This Sunday is St. Thomas Sunday. It is "Low Sunday." Our churches might be empty because everyone is exhausted from the Holy Week festivities. They might be empty because the pastors have decided to take a week of rest. They might be empty because everyone is tired of hearing the story of Thomas, yet again. It is a hard story to hear because in it Jesus sends us out into the world to share the Gospel. There are people who have done things that we would rather not forgive. There are especially people who are not willing to believe when we tell them that we have 'seen the Lord!" However, the gift of our faith is not given for our own benefit; it is given so that we will take it out into the world, praising God with our lives.

So, we are called to be like Quasimodo, "in the manner of newborn babes" in faith. Our belief is not based on proof or sight, but on God's grace. So, we go about our lives singing praise and thanksgiving to God so that others might experience Him and also become believing.

John writes, "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." We have the witness of those who have come before, those who experienced Jesus in the flesh and in His new flesh. We have the witness of those who came after them, who believed not by sight but by the power of the Holy Spirit. Now it is our turn, to take the Spirit into the world to share God's grace. We are called to be Christ to those who are yet to become believing, so that they might have that very real experience that will bring them faith.

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