Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Following Jesus with the Saints in Advent

“St. Thomas: Confidence in the Incarnate Christ”

December 21, 2016


St. Thomas is admittedly an odd character to talk about this time of year.  He usually appears in our Easter narratives.  Advent is winding down this week.  Christmas is just around the corner.  And here we are, commemorating one of Christ’s apostles.  And not just any apostle, but one who has forever been tagged with the unfortunate moniker “Doubting Thomas.”  You remember how he was not present with the other disciples in the Upper Room when Jesus appeared to them the evening of the day Jesus rose from the dead.  They later reported to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!”  Thomas replied skeptically, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the marks of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25).  Yet Jesus was merciful to Thomas.  The very next week, the disciples were gathered together again, and Jesus showed up one more time, seemingly for the benefit of Thomas and Thomas alone.  “Put your finger here,” Jesus said to him, “and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.  Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).  Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!”

            So, is this an appropriate account to hear only a few days before Christmas?  Tradition tells us that Thomas died on December 21 in the year 72 and his feast day was inserted into the church year calendar in the 9th century.  As late as 1969, though, the Roman Catholic Church moved his feast day to July 3 so that his remembrance would not interfere with the days leading up to Christmas.

            But it seems to me that it’s entirely appropriate to think about St. Thomas today.  Because with Christmas, the cross is always in view.  And with the cross, the resurrection is always in view.  Here’s how Ambrose would have us sing about it:

God the Father was His source,
Back to God He ran His course.
Into hell His road went down,
Back then to His throne and crown.

For You are the Father’s Son
Who in flesh the vict’ry won.
By Your mighty pow’r make whole
All our ills of flesh and soul.

            Doubt is certainly one of those ills of soul that we struggle with on a regular basis.  Thomas reminds us of those struggles.  We are no different from him.  We need to see things to believe them.  We have a hard time believing the words of the other apostles who have told us that the crucified Christ is risen … he is risen indeed!  We wonder if God will truly ever by his mighty power make whole all our ills of flesh and soul.

            In one sense, it is okay to struggle with our doubts.  It’s okay to admit them, to work through them, to battle with the big issues surrounding faith and belief and trust.  God is surely big enough to handle our doubts.  And of all places, the church should be a place where we can admit them and together struggle against them, like the man who cried out to Jesus, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

            At the same time, God calls us to faith.  Jesus had told Thomas, “Do not disbelieve, but believe” and “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).  He chastised Peter when he tried to walk to Jesus on the water, saying, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31).  And James in his epistle tells us when we pray to “ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6).

Gideon had his doubts.  He wondered if God had the right guy.  Midianite raiding parties had been terrorizing Israel for seven years.  God told Gideon that he would be the one to deliver Israel from the hands of the Midianites.  But Gideon decided to put God to the test, to see if he would deliver on his promises.  And so he played his little game with God with the fleece and the dew.  Now, this does not mean that we should do the same.  Nowhere in the Bible does it tell us that this is an acceptable way to discover God’s will.  On the other hand, it does does show how God graciously condescended to Gideon to prove himself to him.  The Lord gave Gideon concrete proof of his promises.

            In an even greater way, God graciously condescended to Thomas to prove himself to him.  He appeared to Thomas and gave him concrete proof of his resurrection.  He could have completely blown Thomas off, saying, “You missed your chance buddy!”  But that’s not what happened.  He invited Thomas to look at his wounds and to touch his pierced side, and Thomas was delivered from doubt and filled with faith.

“My Lord and My God” was his repentant cry and his confession of faith all wrapped up into one clear, bold statement.  It was the clearest confession of the identity of the Incarnate Christ that anyone had made up to that point.  The Man Jesus Christ is Lord and God of us all, the One who first condescended to enter his own creation to become one of us, to become a helpless little baby, to grow up and live in perfect obedience to the Law of God, to suffer and die for our disobedience, to be our substitute in obedience and in justice, so that you and I could be justified, declared not guilty, reconciled to God, forgiven.

Jesus also graciously condescends to us today with something concrete, something you can touch … the water and blood that poured forth from his pierced side.  These signify the means that give birth to Christ’s Church and which nurtures Christ’s Church … baptism and the shed blood of Christ.  And so we come to him here with all our doubts, with all our skepticism, and cry out “Forgive me, my Lord and my God!”  And he says, “put your hand here. I place my very body into your hand and my very own blood into your mouth.  Taste and see that I am good.  That I am here for you.  That I forgive you for all your doubts.  That I will strengthen your faith.”

Before Jesus rose from the dead, Thomas had made a prior bold statement as one of Christ’s followers.  Opposition to Jesus by the leaders in Jerusalem had been increasing.  Jesus was summoned to Bethany near Jerusalem where his friend Lazarus had died and told the disciples that he was going to there.  Heading into the eye of the storm in Judea where opposition to Jesus was greatest, Thomas said to his fellow disciples, “Let us go, that we may die with him.”  Perhaps not a confession of faith, but certainly a courageous resolve to follow his Master to the bitter end.

“Let us go, that we may die with him.”  Thomas had no idea how true this would one day be.  Thomas would certainly participate in Jesus’ cross.  According to tradition, Thomas went on a missionary journey to preach the Gospel in India.  To this day, there is a Christian community in India that claims to descend from Christians first converted through Thomas’ preaching.  Tradition states that Thomas was speared to death for what he preached.  What a blessed irony this is!  Thomas wouldn’t believe until he had touched the spear mark in Jesus side.  And it was a spear that Thomas would take in his own body for the sake of the name of Jesus whom he preached!

Because of his faith in Christ, the symbol now identified with Thomas is a spear. He shared in Christ’s death, and he will also share in Christ’s resurrection.  Thomas now dwells with Christ his Savior, awaiting the day of resurrection … concrete proof of which Jesus showed Thomas in his own resurrection.  And so it is also for you!  Like Thomas, you have been marked with the name of Christ.  In Holy Baptism, you received the sign of the cross on both your forehead and upon your heart – to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. Wearing the sign of his death – you also shall wear the crown of life that Christ has won for you.[1]

Blessed are you now because you have not seen and yet have believed.  But on that great day of resurrection, you will finally get to see with your own eyes.  And all doubt will finally be removed.


[1] This paragraph and the previous paragraph adapted from a portion of a sermon by the Rev. Jeffrey Ries.

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