Saturday, April 26, 2014

Comfort and Comedy

John 20:19-31
Easter 2 / Holy Humor
April 27, 2014
William G. Carter 

. . . 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 he 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.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. 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 said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 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, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

It is a cruel irony that Doubting Thomas visits us on Holy Humor Sunday. Thomas is the kind of guy who can’t take a joke. The few times we meet him in scripture, he is earnest and precise. He believes words should mean what they mean.

He speaks first in chapter eleven, after Lazarus dies. Lazarus, the beloved friend of Jesus, had been sick, and Jesus wait for a couple of days. Then Jesus says, “Let’s go to Judea.” The disciples say, “Lord, they were just trying to kill you in Judea,” but Jesus says, “We have to go wake Lazarus.” They say, “But if he’s only sleeping, he will be OK.”

Jesus smacks his head and says, “I guess I can use metaphors and euphemisms with you people. Let me say it straight: Lazarus kicked the bucket, bought the farm, and bit the dust.” And they look at him blankly. So he says, “Lazarus is dead. Come on, we are going to him.” And Thomas gets his first speaking line in scripture, kind of spoken in the tone of Eeyore: “Alright, let’s go die with him.”

The big joke is that Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. I imagine him looking at the twelve and saying, “Do you get it?”

The next time Thomas speaks, he interrupts Jesus. It’s the Last Supper. Judas has just slipped out to betray. Jesus is giving an extended speech. It’s a farewell speech. He tells them how to make their way in the world after he’s gone. These have become some of the most beloved words in the Bible: Love one another, as I have loved you. I am the vine, you are the branches; stay with me.

At one point Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places… If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

And Thomas interrupts and says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
He is one of the Beloved of God, and he interrupts some of the most comforting words that the Lord ever speaks.

It seems he can’t help himself. It is how he processes reality: with precision, with accuracy, with clarity. He wants to know, and to be clear about it.

Thomas reminds me of how Garrison Keillor describes an engineer. If a pessimist sees a glass and says it is half-empty, and an optimist sees a glass and says it is half-full, then an engineer sees a glass that is twice as big as it ought to be. I have engineers in my family. Thomas would make a good one. These are the people we count on to design our bridges and measure our brake pads. It’s OK that they are not comfortable with ambiguity.

But faith requires something else. Faith is a move from outer observation to inner comfort. We could say with Thomas that “seeing is believing” – but faith is about believing even if we do not see.

That’s why the Gospel of John tells the story of Thomas. John is writing sixty years or more after the Resurrection. For us, that’s kind of like the people who still remember fighting in World War 2. There aren’t as many of them as there used to be. If the stories are to be remembered, they must be written down. That is what John is doing for the people who didn’t actually see Jesus.

And he is offering this as a gift to people like us, who come years later. We hear about Jesus, we hear about his resurrection, but he does not come “on demand” as if he has to prove anything.

That reminds me of Doubting Thomas’ favorite joke. Ever hear that one?

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
No, it’s not.
Yes, it is.
No, it’s not. Jesus never knocks. He appears if and when he chooses, and rarely when we expect him.

I wonder if anybody laughed when the Lord appeared a week after Easter. The disciples were in a room they knew how to lock from the inside, but suddenly he was there. Not only that; he had heard what Thomas and the others were saying when he wasn’t visibly present in the room.

Last week, we heard how Mary Magdalene did not even recognize him outside his tomb. This week, we hear of an eavesdropping Lord – he can hear what we say, and can appear anywhere – recognized or not – before he slips out of sight again. If these are clues from John as to how to live with a Risen Lord, then the blessing really comes when we believe what we cannot see.

Erik Erikson, the psychiatrist, wrote about children who cry the moment that a parent steps out of sight. To use his words, ''The infant's first social achievement, is his willingness to let the mother out of sight without undue anxiety or rage, because she has become an inner certainty as well as an outer predictability.''[1]

I like that phrase: “an inner certainty as well as an outer predictability.”

In these weeks after Easter, we are going to spend some time in worship with the Heidelberg Catechism. It’s a teaching document from 1563, designed to give us the words to ground our faith, to help us establish Christ as an “inner certainty.” I invite you to a weekly Wednesday evening class at 6:15 as we work through the words before I preach about them on the next six Sundays. A catechism is a Question and Answer document, and the first question is the one before us today: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The answer begins, “That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Faith takes root in this answer. We belong to Jesus Christ, the One who returns from the grave, who hears our doubts and misgivings without blasting us in punishment, who is free to come and go as he please, who is with us without recognition, who beckons us to join in the life eternal of the Father. We can’t see or prove any of this – but we can trust it as an inner certainty.

Jesus offers us a faith without any props, beginning with the prop of his physical body. Nobody can cling to his shoulder, like Mary Magdalene wanted to do. Nobody can stick their finger in the nail holes, like Thomas said he needed to do. Bodily contact is not necessary for Christian faith, because faith is a matter of the spirit, an inner certainty that benefits both body and soul.

We belong to Christ, to the Risen Christ. That is our comfort, and our only comfort. There are people who can give us comfort, people we can love and adore, but they are not perfect and sooner or later they will let us down. There are words by great spiritual leaders that offer wisdom and insight, but words slip into the air and evaporate eventually. Even a church, a good church like this one, has an array of opportunities for worship, education, and service - - but every human institution waxes and wanes, goes through cycles, evolves, changes, or falls apart – every single one.

What remains is Jesus Christ. Death did not take him away; on the first day of New Creation, God raised him. He’s back and completely alive. Nothing can take away the love he has for us. It is a certainty.

From time to time, some of you have heard me quote Frederick Buechner. Fred is an award-winning writer, a Presbyterian minister in fact. A few of his books are on my top shelf, close to where I write my sermons. I reach for them when words fail me, because his words speak so well.

What is not so widely known is the moment when faith bubbled up within his spirit. Buechner was a published novelist, widely acclaimed, yet he sensed something was missing. Here’s how he tells the story:

. . .  for the first time in my life that year in New York, I started going to church regularly, and what was farcical about it was not that I went but my reason for going, which was simply that on the same block where I lived there happened to be a church with a preacher I had heard of and that I had nothing all that much better to do with my lonely Sundays. The preacher was a man named George Buttrick, and Sunday after Sunday I went, and sermon after sermon I heard. It was not just his eloquence that kept me coming back, though he was wonderfully eloquent, literate, imaginative, never letting you guess what he was going to come out with next but twitching with surprises up there in the pulpit, his spectacles aglitter in the lectern light. What drew me more was whatever it was that his sermons came from and whatever it was in me that they touched so deeply.

And then there came one particular sermon with one particular phrase in it that does not even appear in a transcript of his words that somebody sent me more than twenty-five years later so I can only assume that he must have dreamed it up at the last minute and ad-libbed it —and on just such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that, I suppose, hang the destinies of us all. Jesus Christ refused the crown that Satan offered him in the wilderness, Buttrick said, but he is king nonetheless because again and again he is crowned in the heart of the people who believe in him. And that inward coronation takes place, Buttrick said, "among confession, and tears, and great laughter." It was the phrase great laughter that did it, did whatever it was that I believe must have been hiddenly in the doing all the years of my journey up till then. It was not so much that a door opened as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon.[2]

Crowned among confession, and tears, and great laughter. With that, the open door, the inner certainty, the comfort offered within God’s grand comedy of resurrection. Trusting in that makes all the difference.

 Did you hear the one about the preacher who spoke too long? He sat down and the people sang about joy.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society, chapter 7 (1950).
[2] Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey, Harper and Row, Publishers.

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