April 24, 2022 – Gospel and Sermon

Gospel lesson and Pastor Richard Pokora’s sermon from April 24, 2022 (as delivered by Roger Oliver)

Message from April 24, 2nd Sunday after Easter by Pastor Richard Pokora

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.

Today the Gospel of John makes us a fly on the wall in the room where the disciples hid themselves, following the death and resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem. We witness the encounter between the Risen Christ and the Apostle Thomas and the other disciples. This dialogue may have taken place two thousand years ago behind locked doors on Easter Sunday, but the faith issue raised here is as modern as the front page of the newspaper.

The Gospel describes a discussion between the Risen Lord Jesus and his disciples that occurred on the evening of the first day of the week, i.e., the day of the resurrection. Jesus appeared to his followers to show them the wounds in his hands and side. When those disciples saw the Risen Lord, they knew the women were right; Jesus had risen from the grave.

One disciples, Thomas, had been absent from the room when Jesus first appeared. Later Thomas returns and the disciples tell him, “We have seen the Lord.” He dismisses their story by saying, “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.” We understand why Thomas replied as he did. News of the resurrection was based on rumor. The safest course of action was to wait and see what happened. We would probably react the same way the Apostle Thomas did.

A week later the disciples, including Thomas, were all gathered again in the house. Jesus stood among them and told Thomas to place his hands in the wounds. Thomas immediately exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas saw and believed Jesus had risen from the dead.

Jesus responds to the confession of St. Thomas by saying: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This interaction between Thomas and Jesus anticipates a time when other individuals will hear the news of the resurrection of Jesus and doubt the truth of the story.

The writer of the Gospel reinforces this conclusion when he adds: “But these words 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.” The audience for this story is a generation of Christians who follow in the footsteps of the disciples, but cannot reach out and touch the wounds of the Risen Lord to satisfy their doubts. The Gospel acknowledges the dialogue between the believing church and the questioning world never ceases.

Today on the Sunday after Easter we find ourselves in the shoes of the Apostles. We too hear the story of the resurrection, but have not seen the Risen Christ and his wounds. Questions rise in our minds to nettle the faith.

I suggest the questions posed by the Apostle Thomas on Easter continue haunt the faith of the church. These questions may be posed in different ways by different people, but the voice of Thomas echoes in the questions. Let me offer you several illustrations of what I mean.

My first example is Michel Onfray, the celebrity philosopher and France’s high priest of militant atheism. European churches may be virtually empty, but religion is a big issue on the continent. Mr. Onfray has mounted a battle against what he calls the hocus-pocus of Christianity.  European atheism made an appearance in America with a book written by Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins titled “The God Delusion. The book has been on the New York Times Best seller list for 28 weeks. The secular atheist are a modern version of the Apostle Thomas. They question the resurrection of Christ, and deny the existence of God and the work of the church.

Let me give you another example of a modern view that suggests the Apostle Thomas. A friend living in Texas e-mails me regularly. On the Saturday before Easter, I asked a him, if he planned to attend an Easter service. He responded in this way:

“We do not attend Easter services. I remember as a boy (a boy who went to church every time they opened the church doors), thinking folks who came to church on Easter were there to show off their new clothes. I did not think very highly of such Christians. Besides, I am not a Christian and hence do not go to church. I like the words, the cadences, and the music of religious faith, even if the doctrine no longer fits. I have settled into a peaceful acceptance, concluding it is all a mystery and one can use almost any words to describe the unknowable.”

“I now describe myself as an Existentialist-Pantheist-Stoic. The tree of my religious beliefs keeps growing new branches, it seems. The truth be told, I still have roots as a Southern Baptist. I do not know about the Risen Son, but the sun has risen here after several rainy days. I am going to ride the lawn mower.” My friend has doubts about the Risen Christ. He might not describe himself as a secularist or an atheist, but he, like Thomas, doubts the resurrection.

Here is my third example. Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, wrote a book titled, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. The Gospel of Thomas, according to Pagels, does not tell people what to believe, but to find the truth in themselves. “Thomas’s gospel encourages the hearer not so much to believe in Jesus, as the (Gospel of) John requires, as to seek to know God through one’s own divinely given capacity, since everyone is created in the image of God.” In other words, the Gospel of John and the so-called Gospel of Thomas conflict deeply with each other. John believes God reveals his truth in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The so-called Gospel of Thomas says find the truth in yourself.

Pagels argues our text from John’s Gospel about Jesus and Thomas shows a division of opinion in the early church about the resurrection. The Gospel of John tells the story of Thomas denial to support belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the sole basis for the Christian faith. Thomas, on the other hand, suggests Christians determine for themselves what the resurrection means, if anything. But this too is form of denial.

 The point is this. The Apostle Thomas stood in the room with the disciples following the resurrection and denies the resurrection of Jesus. Denial of the resurrection takes many forms. The atheist denies not only the resurrection, and God himself, while others do not know what to believe or believe what they want to believe.

Today we stand in that room with the disciples and affirm for ourselves that Christ has indeed risen from the grave. Jesus may not stand before us with his wounds. But we believe are blessed because, though we have not seen, we still believe. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.