Thursday 31 March 2016

Stop doubting and start believing. Stop fearing start sharing peace.

Stop doubting and start believing. Stop fearing start sharing peace.

The interaction between Jesus and Thomas is one of the most known stories of the New Testament Still today most people will use the phrase “doubting Thomas” to describe someone whether the are Christians or not.

Yet the story we heard today begins at a different point – the disciples locked in a room fearing. Fearing the Jews.

This morning I want us to reflect on both of these aspects of the story fearing and doubting.  Emotions and actions that are countered by Jesus’ presence in which sharing peace and witnessing in faith supplant the fearing and doubting and so become the appropriate response.

To begin with we will look through the window into the room where the disciples had locked themselves and think about the story as it was told by John.  We will then look into the window of our own lives at the fearing and doubting that continue to plague us in our faith.

As we engage this story we will also contemplate the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, the meaning of the peace he declares and the response peace sharing and witnessing in faith.

The community of Christians that John was writing his gospel for was very different from us.  It was around 60 years since the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection had occurred.  A few generations had passed and followers of Jesus had experienced a difficult time.

Right from the outset there was tension with the Temple authorities.  The first followers of Jesus as the Christ came from within Jewish community and it was only in the decades that followed that gentiles began to become followers of Christ as well.  This tension was continuing to be played out in John’s time as Christianity had been emerging from being a sect within Judaism to a religion in its own right.

Alongside, this in the mid-60s and then again in the late 80s and early 90s two Roman Emperor’s, Nero and then Domitian, specifically targeted the Christians.

The imagery of the disciples locked in the room for fear of the Jews is a story that would have had a great deal of meaning for the persecuted Christians in John’s community: fearing possibly the Jews and the Romans.  The disciples were in hiding and the community that John wrote for may have well felt a connection to the kind of fear the disciples felt.

Despite having heard the news of the resurrection the disciples continued to be afraid.  They may have thought that their lives, like Jesus’ life, was at risk.  The reality is their lives probably were at risk but Jesus’ resurrection was a sign that the worst that could be done could not hold God’s loves back.

And so it is that despite the fear and the locked doors Jesus comes and stands among his disciples and declares “Peace be with you” – “Shalom”. 2000 years on I think it is sometimes hard to capture the significance Jesus’ words carry.  As Jesus declares “Shalom” there are undertones of the Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur and there overtones of the promised peace that God desires for all peoples.  Peace with God and peace with one another – stop fearing for here in Christ’s presence there is peace.

Fear can be a powerful motivating force for any of us.  Though we do not meet this day behind locked doors, we meet in a building set aside for Christian worship with the doors flung wide open in welcome we can and do lock the doors of our faith.  We can be fearful that beyond this building or even with one another sharing our faith might not be such a good thing.

Consider some of these fears we might have in being open about our faith.

We might fear ridicule and persecution due to our association with particular people who claim to be Christians, or because the history within our church, or simply because there are those out there who want to undermine us.

I have to admit when I hear that Donald Trump is being supported by American Evangelicals I fear for the Church and am reticent to own my faith.  Trump’s politics is built on fear and hate and violence none of which reflects the Christ that I have come to know in the gospels. 

I know that within the church, not just the Catholic Church, there has been an abominable history of child abuse.  It is part of every denomination and I have been personally attacked for continuing to be a Christian because of the atrocities committed by those who follow Christ.

In many Christian circles the rejection of scientific understandings and research is simply embarrassing and peddling ignorance simply feeds the militant atheists who attack the church.

The news cycle feeds us with continued information about terrorists who attack Christians and so we might also feel a personal sense of fear around this issue as well.

Because of these issues, among others, we might fear being socially ostracised as followers of Jesus or fear our ability to defend or articulate or faith adequately in the face of an onslaught of questions.

It is easier for us to lock our faith inside than be open about it and declare and defend our faith when called upon to.  Yet, this decision can allow the ignorance and misinformation about Jesus and his followers to continue.

The resurrected Christ comes into our midst through the power of the Holy Spirit, just as he did so long ago, and speaks into our fearing and says to us Peace be with you, Shalom!  This is a word of hope and comfort and affirmation we need to hear as well.  We need to hear it as much as the first disciples needed to hear it, as much as John’s community, stop fearing – peace be with you.

Each week as a congregation we take the time to share the peace but I often wonder whether we are really able to convey the depth of the peace being offered by God and the peace each one of us needs.  Peace which quells our sense of guilt over things that gave gone awry in our lives; peace that stills our anxious hearts over the worries which beset us; peace that builds bridges between us when we find it difficult to get on with one another; peace that gives us hope beyond the suffering in this world; peace in a coming kingdom what we cannot see but only glimpse. Peace, shalom! Peace that comes down from heaven and helps us transcend our fears.

Stop fearing – know Christ’s peace. 

This brings me to the second movement in the story, it is that well know interaction with Thomas – stop doubting and start believing.  The end of John’s gospel is clear: John records his gospel that people might believe that Jesus is the son of God but in this moment Thomas simply did not believe that Jesus had risen from among the dead.  He did not believe the testimony of the other disciples.

His doubting came from the lack of personal experience and encounter. How often do any of us say something along these lines, “Unless I see it for myself I won’t believe it.”

Thomas’s doubting and ours springs from within us:

·         doubting because we have not seen
·         doubting because we were not there
·         doubting because we have no experience
·         doubting because we do not understand

I have often preaching that our doubting is a good thing because doubts can lead us to questions and lead us to grow in our faith and understanding.  This conviction remains true – doubting can lead us to grow but when we look at this passage the response to doubting is not knowing or understanding but believing.

We are not told whether Thomas actually touched Jesus and had such a tangible and earthy experience of Jesus’ but Thomas responds with a confession of faith.

“My Lord and my God.”

Thomas confessing of Jesus as Lord and God transcends the moment and in some way retains something of the mystery of believing.  Believing is not about knowing everything or being able to prove it. It is simply what it claims it is: ‘belief’ which is defined as “an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.”

Believing may involve placing our trust in something that is otherworldly, that is not provable, but it does not have to be completely blind or ignorant either.

The notion of believing can sit comfortably alongside the notion of continuing to grow and even doubt.  Rather in believing in Jesus our lives and our questions bceome shaped around the one in whom we believe.

To be a confessing people, to say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God”, is not to make some ambit claim at knowing everything but is to place our trust and focus in life in something beyond the parameters of our personal experiences.

We, like Thomas, may struggle with the lack of personal encounter, or understanding, or proof, yet the peace of God comes among us and we can move from doubting to believing.

Finally, after declaring the peace to the disciples Jesus breathes on them with the Holy Spirit and sends them into the world. 

This sending of the disciples is I believe about sending them to be bearers of the ‘shalom’ he has shared with them.  The disciples become apostles, sent into the world, to be about the business of peace sharing.

Sharing peace between peoples who find themselves estranged from God, estranged from community and estranged from each other.  To do so would mean transcending their fears and doubts and it means the same for us.

When we consider the world around us and the division and pain that continue to abide in the world the work of peace sharing is before us.  Peace sharing within the difficulties and brokenness of our own families.  Peace sharing between communities separated by race or religion.  Peace sharing between communities dominated by fear, doubt and hate. Peace sharing so that we might live as one humanity loving one another.

What dominates us? Fearing and doubting or God’s peace and our belief.

Having shared the peace here together, at the end of the service we will be sent out, to go about our daily lives sharing this peace of God with others.  May God give you strength to transcend the locked rooms of your fears and doubts and declare the ‘shalom’ of God through your words and actions. 

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