The community carries the story

The community carries the story

A baptismal sermon by Jamie Howison on John 20:19-31

In all three years of the lectionary cycle of readings, it is this gospel that is always read in the second Sunday of Eastertide. I think this is a remarkably wise decision on the part of the framers of the lectionary, to have us read the story of Thomas, the disciple who couldn’t risk believing unless he had solid, concrete proof. In John’s telling, the other disciples had been together on that first resurrection day, and had encountered the risen Jesus.

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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 Thomas 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.’

And really, who can blame him? Along with the others, he’d left behind the life he’d known and followed Jesus out on the road for three years. There’s been so much hope and so much promise, yet the dream had come crashing down just a few days earlier when Jesus had been arrested. Sentenced to death in what amounted to a kangaroo court, he’d been tortured to death on a Roman cross, his broken body buried in a stone tomb. Not only that, but it was clear that the disciples themselves could be next, because word was that those who had done this to Jesus were looking to stop his movement in its tracks by taking out his followers. With his hopes crushed and his very life threatened, how could Thomas help but doubting? Why wouldn’t he need solid proof?

“A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.” Now there’s a significant detail: “Thomas was with them.” He couldn’t bear to risk believing, but he’d not fled back to Galilee either. He was still keeping company with the others; with those who had dared to believe that the story had not ended, but was in fact really just beginning. And they hadn’t drawn a line in the sand, demanding that Thomas believe or be pushed out. No, somehow all of them—including Thomas himself—could reconcile doubt and misgivings with friendship and community.

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, too, could reconcile Thomas’s doubts with the friendship he’d pledged him the night of his arrest, when he’d bent down to wash his disciples feet. Thomas’s doubts are not taken as a breach or a barrier, but are rather accepted and met. Touch my wounds, Thomas, if that’s what you need to do. Set aside your doubts, touch me, and believe.

Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ which is the highest proclamation regarding Jesus in the entire Gospel tradition. Not simply “son of God” or “messiah”, but my Lord and my God. The penny has dropped for Thomas… I’ve been walking with God for these years.

“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.’” Is there a little bit of reproof—a little bit of scolding—in that question, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Maybe a touch, but the more significant statement is the one that comes next: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Who do you suppose John had in mind when he wrote that? In the end, he has you and me in mind, and he has Macey in view as well; this little girl we are about to baptize. We don’t get to see the risen Christ in the way the disciples did, and we certainly don’t get to touch his wounded hands. There are other ways in which he is present to us, and other ways in which we can and do experience him, but much as we—like Thomas—can sometimes crave concrete proof and hard evidence, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Here’s where this story becomes particularly relevant to us, and to this baptism. For that week when Thomas couldn’t bear to risk believing, the other disciples carried the story for him. He couldn’t set aside his doubts, yet he also couldn’t walk away from that circle of friendship and community, so he stayed close and they held the story for him. There are times when some of us struggle to believe or to trust or to make sense of this thing called faith, yet the gathered community—the body—still carries the story. There will be times when parts of the baptismal creed we will proclaim in just a few minutes will stick in your throat, and at those times if you can’t quite say it, the body says it for you.

And when it comes to the baptism of a little child who clearly can’t begin to understand all that is going on, much less the strong words her parents and godparents will say on her behalf, that becomes even more real. What we are doing today is to name her as one of us—fully one of us, with no less status or stature than someone with a doctorate in theology, a clerical collar, or decades and decades of prayer and spiritual formation. And then we say, in effect, Macey, because you are one of us and one with us, for now we’re going to carry the story for you. As you grow and learn—as you seek and inevitably question and doubt—we will continue to carry the story and to share it with you. As those disciples did for Thomas, we will do for you.

There’s a prayer in this liturgy that I’ll say for this little girl, which I think really sums up the force of what we’re doing:

Give her an inquiring and discerning heart,

the courage to will and to persevere,

a spirit to know and to love you,

and the gift of joy and wonder

in all your works. Amen.

“Give her an inquiring and discerning heart,” which among other things means let her ask her questions, Lord; let her ask her questions. But also give her “joy and wonder in all of God’s works,” which is maybe the gift that will most see her through.

To which I would want to add this: Give us, as a people, those things too. Inquiring and discerning hearts, and that gift of joy and wonder, through thick and thin, in all of your works. Give us those things, and keep us moving forward.

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