April 12, 2012, Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church, St. Paul
Sometime—not this morning—I could tell you the story of the day my brother Mike, a preaching prof at Luther Seminary, used a sermon dad had written on this Thomas text in a Kairos class he was teaching on paying attention to the structure of a sermon.
I won’t tell you that story here, but my thinking about it is what led me to be thinking about the structure of a sermon—this sermon—and another thing Mike often talked about, and that was the “controlling image” of a sermon.
The controlling image for today’s sermon came to me from a TV ad I spotted last week. You’re never going to get this in a preaching class, but here goes. The weather is getting warmer, Dairy Queen is starting to run its ads, and there it was—a close-up of a nice sugar cone, held under the dispenser, soft ice-cream filling it up, one-two-three globs, then that nice little twist at the top without which a DQ cone wouldn’t be a DQ cone at all.
And I thought aha! —there it is—the controlling image for this sermon. A DQ ice-cream cone. Crisp cone, three helpings of ice cream, and the twist at the end.
So if your mind wanders and you need to plug back in in a few minutes, that’s what’s going on here—cone, three scoops, and a twist.
So here goes.
The cone that holds it all, of course, is the Thomas story, so familiar to you as the Sunday-after-Easter story that I don’t have to repeat it. Jesus appears—Thomas wasn’t there at first and is told of Jesus’ appearance. He doesn’t believe unless he sees. A week later Jesus appears, and Thomas sees and believes. You’ve all unpacked that story, so I’ll pass on the heavy exegesis.
But it’s that story that holds the rest of what I’m going to say here.
Here’s the connection I see between this text and this morning’s focus on the mission of our congregations: We are living in a time when pollsters tell us there is great spiritual interest, searching, but in a culture of individualism and lack of faith in institutions. It means that folks don’t automatically turn to the church to fill the hunger. Where do they turn? All sorts of places. Where might we suggest they turn? Or even better—where might we place ourselves so that we meet both them and the Living Christ there?
One simple observation that we can make from the story of Thomas is that much of our life is determined by where we happen to be—or where we place ourselves. Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared. And Thomas, like the seekers and wanderers today, wasn’t content to simply take the disciples word for it that Jesus was around. He needed to encounter Jesus; he needed to be there with Jesus. We are surrounded today by people who are hungry to encounter Jesus. And they aren’t willing to simply take our word for it that Jesus was around. They may not need the finger in the hand or the hand in the side, but they want something more than our word for it. They want to encounter Jesus. Just like Thomas wanted, some
. 2000 years later. Same story. Same yearning.
So what do we offer?
Rather than thinking up some magic solution ourselves and pulling off just the right program, we might suggest they look for Jesus (and we look with them) where Jesus said he could be found. I’m thinking of three places in particular. So here come the three dollops of substance, if you’re still following the controlling image, the structure of this sermon! We suggest those who would seek an encounter with the living Christ could station themselves in three places where Jesus said he would be found.
First. We have Christ’s promise that he will come in Word and Sacraments. Spend time with the Word—the Bible itself, regularly, devotionally, in others’ reflections on the Bible in groups or devotional practice. I’m not speaking of bibliolatry here —worship of the bible. I wish our people were clear about that. Muslims “worship” the Koran. It’s the object of their worship (Muhammad isn’t; he is the prophet who testifies to and points to the Koran). For us it’s the reverse. We worship the God we meet in Jesus Christ, and the Scriptures are the story of that God coming to us in the life and history of our world. The cradle that holds the Christ, as Luther said. But if you want to encounter that Christ child, you go to the cradle. The story. J.B. Phillips was one of the first to translate the Bible loosely (“modern English,” he called it)—most of the New Testament, some of the Old Testament. When he was done, he wrote a little book called The Ring of Truth, in which he simply said that spending all that time with these writings, even as a scholar, he couldn’t help but come away with a profound sense of having experienced a Ring of Truth—something was alive that went beyond the words. If one wants to draw close to the God of the Universe, we immerse ourselves in the pages of God’s story.
Second. Place yourself in the company of God’s people. “Where two or three are gathered, I am in the midst of them.”
- The Old Testament is not a story of individual events. It’s the story of the people of God.
- The New Testament is not a story of personal conversions, one by one, but a story about when faith is born a community of faith is formed.
- Even Jesus’ sharing of himself— “given for you… shed for you”—was a plural you when Jesus spoke it, not an individual you as we use it now. We call them the Sacraments, arising from Jesus’ own promise that this is where he is to be met: in the mystery of breaking bread in the community of God’s people.
- In an age of do-your-own-thing religion, we invite people into community, where we meet God in the midst of what Martin Buber called the I-Thou relationships that offer holiness like no other gathering. We aren’t inviting people to sign up and boost our club membership numbers—we are inviting them to meet the living God where Jesus said he would be found—in the gathered community.
Third. Jesus said he would surely be found was in the company of the world’s poor and hungry and outcast.
- “When did we see you hungry?”
- “As you do to the least of these, you do to me.”
Being immersed in the lives of the world’s wounded is not the do-gooder thing we do because we got religion. It is part and parcel of encountering a living and loving God. Some of those who have rejected our stately sanctuaries have done so because they have sensed the presence of a living God among the needs of the world and don’t see the church there. The invitation we have to offer is for us also to be present among the poor and hungry and the outcast because that’s where Jesus – and the Old Testament prophets knew it too – said we would encounter God.
We live in a world teeming with Thomas’ desire to encounter the living Christ. We have the promise of Christ-with-us to offer them, in those three places.
- In the Word,
- In the gathered community of believers,
- In the presence of the world’s wounded.
And here’s the twist, without which this would simply be another essay, and not fully the gospel:
Can I really say that this threefold sermon was drawn directly out of this text? Not really. In this story, Jesus appeared to the disciples and to Thomas. And does this story bear out what I’ve just preached about encountering God in the Word, in the fellowship of believers, in serving the wounds of the world? Nope.
The disciples were together, but not because they were immersed in the Word or because it was a Book of Acts type house church (that comes later). They weren’t faithfully waiting, they were cowering in fear, “for fear of the Jews!” And Thomas? Gone to lead Bible study or preach? Don’t know. All we know is he was absent. Maybe less fearful—that would fit with earlier glimpses we get of Thomas, the disciple in John 11 who responds to Jesus speaking about his death by suggesting they “go with him, that we may die also.” But all we know in this story is that he was absent.
And that’s the twist, that makes this text fully gospel. We are called and invited to encounter Jesus in the living Word, in the faith community, in the suffering of the world. But even if we shrink back, if we hide out of fear, or if we’re simply doing something else and are absent—Jesus even comes there.
He finds us in the power of the Word. He finds us in the mystery of the community gathered. He finds us in the suffering of this world. And also he finds us in our own fear. He finds us when we wander off and are absent.
The twist at the end of the story? No matter where we are, the crucified and risen One finds us!
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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." 26A 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." 27Then 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." 28Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" 29Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.