I Love This Sunday: Skeptics Welcomed Here

[This message was delivered on the second Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2021, at Perinton Presbyterian Church, from John 20:19-31.]

This year-long pandemic has forced churches to be creative. The day before Palm Sunday we had a drive-thru for Holy Week bags. One church offered a drive-thru crucifixion. Were they going to crucify a car or some passengers? Why didn’t we think of crucifying a few of you after we handed you Holy Week bags? Another church pulled out all the stops for Easter. Their road sign said, “He died. He is risen. He is coming again…in person Sunday at 9:00am.” I wonder how that went. In fact, we have Jesus here this morning, though not in person in the usual meaning of those words.

This Sunday is a special challenge. I know because I am a retired (make that semi-retired) preacher. I always get asked to preach this Sunday. I said no to two others churches a few weeks ago that asked me to preach this Sunday. This is the second Sunday of Easter. In the eastern orthodox churches, the first Sunday of Easter this year is May 2. They are still in Lent. I wonder if any of them are thinking about a drive-thru crucifixion. They have plenty of time to plan it.

For the second Sunday of Easter, we get the same gospel account every year: the one where the risen Jesus appears to Thomas. I preached from it last year at a sister church of ours just down the road, First Presbyterian of Pittsford. And the year before I preached this Sunday somewhere else. And the year before . . . . I like Thomas. My faith in Jesus needs Thomas.

It’s that Sunday again. Do I have anything fresh to say? Yes. As Pastor Laura noted last Sunday, the word news implies new. We are telling a story that happened nearly 2,000 years ago. Is it new? You bet it is. Does the preacher have anything new to say? You bet he does. I have good news, that never grows old.

I like Thomas. He is honest. He doesn’t toe a party line. He asks questions that need to be asked. I am starting to see Thomas as the patron saint of scientists. He wants evidence, empirical evidence. “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.” Since the other disciples got to see Jesus’ wounds a week before, this was a reasonable request. Science makes progress by asking probing questions to get at truth and examining all available evidence. That sounds healthy to me. Thomas would approve. I like Thomas.

Science and faith are not enemies. Science and faith need each other. Today there is a divide between faith and science for many people. That is unnecessary and unfortunate. The group in our country most resistant to getting COVID vaccinations is white evangelical Protestants. That is my heritage.  Some are saying that taking vaccines is putting our trust in ungodly science rather than in God. I believe in God and trust my life to God. And I buckle my seat belt whenever I get in a car. I believe in the Lord and I stop at red lights and stop signs. I see my doctor once a year and my dentist twice a year. I got both my COVID shots over a month ago, and my faith in God was not shaken one bit. I believe in God and in science; I believe in prayer and I try to use the mind God has given me to make responsible decisions. Thomas doesn’t trouble me. I like his honesty. Some of my very good friends are followers of Jesus and scientists. They enrich my understanding of faith. I like Thomas. My faith in Jesus needs Thomas. I think the Church needs to issue an apology for communicating to skeptics that they aren’t welcome, that their questions are not welcome.

Dr. Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health. In an Easter message on the CBS Sunday Morning last week, he said, “I am a physician, a scientist, and an evangelical Christian. I believe that science and faith are not in conflict. They offer complementary perspectives, with science answering questions that start with ‘how,’ and faith often better positioned to answer ‘why.’” In addition to Collins’s faith, Dr. Deborah Birx is a graduate of Houghton College, a Wesleyan College close to here. Dr. Anthony Fauci was raised a Roman Catholic Christian and went to Holy Cross College, a Jesuit school. Faith and science need each other. I give thanks for people like Anne, Kerry, Sandy, Charlotte, Jude, Eric, Becky, and others in our congregation who follow Jesus with all their minds and hearts and learn everything they can from science to participate in God’s healing ministry.

I like Thomas. So does Jesus. Then Jesus 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.’” The wounds are still there. Why? If Jesus was raised to newness of life, shouldn’t we expect that the wounds of crucifixion would be gone? Don’t we want a risen savior with a spiffy new body, free of scars, wounds, and holes caused by spikes?

“The Incredulity of St. Thomas” by Caravaggio is a classic painting of Thomas seeing and touching the wounds of Jesus. The great artists, including Rembrandt and vonHonthorst, all agreed: Thomas got to see and touch the very wounds of Jesus. Knowing that our savior, our Lord and God, has wounds make God approachable and vulnerable. That word vulnerable comes from a Latin word, vulnus, which means wound. We worship and serve a Lord with wounds, with scars, that will be visible in eternity.

The last book of the Bible, the Revelation, gives us a dramatic glimpse into heavenly worship. John, lifted into that heavenly worship, is wondering where Jesus is. This is what happens: “So I looked, and there, surrounded by Throne, Animals, and Elders, was a Lamb, slaughtered but standing tall.” (Revelation 5:6 from “The Message.”) The lamb of God, slaughtered and wounded, and standing tall. Then all fell before the lamb in worship and sang,

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

During Lent, I listen frequently to a song by Michael Card entitled, “Come, Lift Up Your Sorrows,” which has these haunting words:

Come lift up your sorrows, and offer your pain; Come make a sacrifice of all your shame;

There in your wilderness, He’s waiting for you, To worship him with your wounds, For He’s wounded too.    (words and music by Michael Card and Vince Taylor)

Jesus never shames Thomas, never humiliates Thomas, never embarrasses Thomas, never excludes Thomas, and never punishes Thomas. Jesus doesn’t take him to the woodshed and give him a talkin’ to. Jesus treats Thomas and his skepticism with respect. Isn’t that good news for us when we can’t figure out God’s ways?

Kintsugi is a Japanese art form that takes broken pottery and repairs it with a mix of lacquer and gold dust. The artist doesn’t try to hide the break, but repairs it and makes it stronger. The made restored pottery, the one with wounds visible, becomes more valuable than the original. Out of brokenness, beauty emerges. Out of a crucifixion, new life emerges. Out of a cold tomb, the risen Lord emerges. Out of a room with the doors shut tight, with a skeptical scientific type named Thomas present, new faith emerges. Everyone hearing this message is wounded, including the preacher. We are all walking wounded. And our Lord is wounded and welcomes us, even with our skepticism and struggles.

“Then Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop not believing and start believing.’ 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.’” Because of Thomas, we receive this blessing. I like Thomas. My faith in Jesus needs Thomas.

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