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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sermon: Second Sunday after Easter

by The Rev. Arthur Halbardier

Some think of Thomas primarily as a skeptic. Is it possible that Thomas, at heart, was a Lutheran?

You’ve probably heard the various answers to, “How many Christians does it take to change a light bulb?”

It only takes one Pentecostal. Pentecostals have both hands in the air most of the time anyway.
It takes at least eight Episcopalians. One to change the bulb and seven to reflect on how the light of the new bulb lacks the elegance and beauty of the old one.

How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? As in most things Lutheran, there is a difference of opinion on the issue. Since neither scripture nor the confessions address the issue specifically, the ELCA has appointed a special task force to embark upon an in-depth study that will report its findings to the next Churchwide Assembly.

The Missouri and Wisconsin synods have declined to participate in the study, stating that Lutherans don’t believe in change.

So, Thomas the apostle may indeed have been a Lutheran at heart. He was not quick to jump on the bandwagon with the other disciples. He demands proof.

Poor Thomas. After having been locked in that room with the other ten disciples for three days, he slips out to the convenience store to pick up frozen pizzas and a 12-pack (I know, he only need eleven…), or perhaps just to get a break from that depressing crowd.

When he comes back, the ten disciples try to convince Thomas that Jesus showed up while he was gone. They even touched the wounds in his hands and side.

Thomas isn’t in a buying mood. “Stop pulling my leg, guys. We agreed this morning, that Mary and the other women were hysterical.

And, “Ahem, if Jesus was here like you say, if he just ordained the ten of you, and breathed the Holy Spirit on you - why are you still huddled in here with the door locked?”

Thomas is ready to trust Jesus. But he has little faith in his fellow disciples.

Tom’s skepticism was well-founded. Because, a week later, where are they? Same place. Still huddled behind locked doors.

In the gospels, the disciples acquire a reputation for cowardice, indecision, and block-headedness by consistently being cowardly, indecisive and block-headed.

But today’s first reading from Acts paints quite a different picture of them just weeks later.
In the verses preceding today’s reading, this same bunch who were hiding out just weeks before are now described running around Jerusalem doing all sorts of “signs and wonders” among the people (Acts 5:12).

The common people hold “them in high esteem.” Multitudes of men and women are being added to the Lord (5:14).

They are preaching and healing the sick. The people of Jerusalem are bringing their sick out into the street hoping that Peter’s shadow might fall upon them and make them well.

The temple bigwigs are not amused. They have the apostles tossed into prison.

But an angel sets them free from the prison, telling them, “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life”(5:20).

And, they do it! This same group of “heroes” who weeks before were locked inside for fear of the temple leaders is out telling everybody Jesus is alive!

When the High Priest and his cronies go to the jail to get the apostles, they find the cell empty.
Chapter 5, verse 25: Someone runs to tell the authorities, “The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!”

The police are sent, nab the apostles and drag them before the court. That’s where our lesson for today began: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in the name of Jesus, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching…”

But, Peter isn’t intimidated: “We must obey God,” he responds, “not any human authority.” And, Peter delivers his ringing witness to Jesus, the Son of God, raised from the dead.

The Bible says, the bigwigs “were enraged and wanted to kill them.” (5:33). But, they couldn’t, for fear the people might riot in protest. They have the apostles flogged with rods and whips instead (5:40).

Thinking that might have made an impression, the temple leaders tell them again, “No more speaking about this Jesus!” But, that same day, and every day after, the 12 are right back in the temple and the synagogues, proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah (5:42).

So, what set Peter’s hair on fire? Where did the apostles acquire backbones in the span of those few weeks?

Skeptical Thomas is said to have carried the Gospel as far East as India. Peter as far west as Rome. Others went to Africa, northern Europe.

Our scripture today makes a point that remains equally valid for us today: Reality was set on its head on Easter. In a snap of divine fingers, God raised Jesus from the dead. But, the world didn’t know anything had changed until the lives of a few individuals were changed by the presence of Jesus. In other words, changing things did not change the world. Changed people changed the world.

Every day we see injustice and discrimination getting the upper hand, advantage going to the advantaged, prejudice against groups and individuals. The innocent suffer.

Our world is desperate for an alternative to the debilitating reality of these times.

What if we were as on fire with making a difference in the life of those outside our doors? What if we were that committed to relating to every person and every issue we encounter as if the risen Christ himself was alive and supporting and working in and with us? What if those we meet or with whom we work saw the risen Christ alive in us, in every choice and relationship and opportunity we are given?

For, he is, isn’t he? The risen Christ is alive, and supporting and working in and with us? We do believe this is true?

Changed people can still change the world.


When Jesus appeared, that week after Easter, in that same locked room, his words “Peace be with you” must have sent a chill through the ten who had heard them the week before. These were the very words Jesus had spoken as he turned over his mission to them - a week earlier. Yet here they were, nothing changed.

But this week, Thomas is the focus of Jesus’ attention. “Thomas, come here. Look. Examine these wounds of mine. I want you to believe.”

Great artists have captured that moment of Thomas touching Jesus’ wounds. It’s even depicted in the picture on our bulletin cover! But in fact, St. John says not a word to indicate that Thomas accepted Jesus’ invitation, ever actually touched the wounds in Jesus’ hands or side. Instead Thomas cries out, in a voice choked with emotion, “ MY LORD AND MY GOD.”

“My Lord and my God” - this is not an admission that resulted from examining physical evidence; this is the profession of a man who was profoundly changed by a face-to-face encounter with the risen Christ.

Thomas declares what can’t be proven, except to those who believe: Jesus is my Lord and my God.

“My Lord and my God” proves to be contagious. First Thomas, then 11 more, finally a movement erupts that shakes the world centers of power and authority.

When Paul and Silas arrive in Thessalonica, a mob gathers to keep them out. Their reputation has preceded them. They are described as these “men who are turning the world upside down.”

Two guys, were turning the world upside down? Yes. Two guys, who had said “yes” to Jesus.

Nero regarded the Christians in Rome such a threat to the empire that he burned a large part of the city and tried to pin the arson on the Christians, hoping for a public uprising against them.
At that time, the congregation in Rome probably numbered a total of 60 persons. But they were 60 who had said “yes” to Jesus.

The risen Christ still comes to his disciples. Some of us are fearful, some skeptical.

The church has many critics; they declare our message irrelevant, our worship out-of-step. Many in the church waste precious energy trying to remake the message and worship to satisfy them. Scandals undermine respect for the church and erode the morale of those of us who love her.

Yet, this is where Jesus still comes, to this frayed and often flawed church. Presents himself to us - in word, in sacrament. Invites us to know him, to know that he is alive.

He says to us, “Peace be with you,” and commissions us to carry what is revealed to us here out into a world that denies he is alive - a world that has given up on believing.

Jesus appears in our little room, among sometimes timid and uncertain disciples. Because we are still the only possible difference for the world.

Perhaps you think I am overstating the case? I say how can we accept any lesser purpose than changing the world for the death and resurrection of Jesus? How can we accept some lesser purpose for the risen Christ appearing here than to change us?

Jesus knows how hard it is for his disciples to believe.

Jesus takes our struggle to hang onto believing in him as seriously as he took the struggle of reluctant Thomas. Because believing isn’t always easy.

It’s a sobering thought, but absolutely true - that the only thing we have to hang onto through the broken times in this life is something no more concrete than a promise.

Seeing is believing, our culture claims. Only fools trust without seeing evidence.

But faith is a matter of believing in things not seen. Of staking life and hope and future on nothing but promises.

We have a promise that because Christ lives, we shall live also. We are children of God, and inheritors of eternal life. Christ has gone before us to prepare a place for us.

Those promises are all we have to hold ourselves together as we see that person we loved so much lowered into the grave. Those promises are all we have when the doctors tell us there’s nothing more that they can do.

All we have are promises to help us believe that the pains and frustrations and crippling contradictions of life are only temporary. Only promises that God has not actually forgotten us when we feel so desperately alone.

The weeks after Easter, as we’ll hear - next Sunday, the week after – tell us of the risen Jesus appearing, again and again, to the apostles.

They don’t recognize him. They don’t get it. Yet, Jesus doesn’t give up on them. Until at last they are goaded by the Holy Spirit to finally say ”yes” to those words we’ve heard again today: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you...”

The Easter story becomes our story. For the risen Jesus continues to appear, trolling for “yes-es” from people like us.

Because the world can only be changed through the life and example of people who have been changed.

So our risen Lord returns here again, today, saying “Here is my body. Take. Eat. Taste my blood, shed for you.”

Looking for a few who will, like Thomas, say, “My Lord and my God,” and go with him, from here today, and tomorrow, and all the tomorrows we will be given, to change the world.

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