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Faith (in one another): The Second Sunday of Easter

Sunday, April 8, 2018
Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1 – 2:2
John 20:19-31

O Lord Jesus Christ, open our hearts that we might take you into our lives.
Grant us the healing power of your peace,
the assurance of your presence,
and the guidance of the Holy Spirit,
making us mindful that the whole earth is our altar,
and on it we offer you
all the labours and sufferings of the world. Amen.

This week there was some discussion online (and internally) about how preachers might navigate today’s Gospel. Because preachers tend to default into one or two sermon themes on this, the Second Sunday in the Easter season, which always features the Thomas story: either A) never doubt (because Thomas doubted) — or perhaps more pastorally: let go of your doubt. Or, B) doubt is OK (because Thomas doubted).

Truth be told, I actually don’t think I’m going to hit either of those. But what immediately came to mind for me — predictably — was a movie. But not a fun and quirky movie like I usually try to reference. This is a rather stern Swedish film by Ingmar Bergman, released in North America under the title Winter Light. (Appropriate, given the recent snow storm.)

It’s about a Lutheran pastor in a small village who’s suffering a crisis of faith. After years of service he’s feeling empty and numb inside. He struggles to experience for himself the words of hope and comfort he’s called upon to proclaim to his congregation. And, to top it all off, he has a cold. Making everything worse.)

And Thomas — did I mention his name was Thomas? — is confronted, person after person, by some pastoral situation that he’s ill-equipped to face.

    He has a parishioner who is dangerously fixated on the possibility of nuclear war.

    His organist is battling chronic pain from a medical condition. He says it’s worse than what Jesus endured. Jesus, he says, only went through a few hours of agony. This guy lives it 24/7.

    And most troubling for Pastor Thomas is a woman named Marta, with whom he once had a romantic relationship. confronts him, and asks he’s bothered to read the letter she wrote him. He hasn’t, but when he eventually finds himself alone, he opens it, and the director Bergman transitions to a completely static close up of the woman, looking right into the camera… as if right into our souls.

And for about six candid, miserable, and very awkward minutes, the camera remains absolutely still as she reveals the details of their broken relationship, and also of her disfiguring skin condition, and of Thomas’s futile attempts at helping her.

And then, later on, after all of this, as the movie progresses… things start to get bad. Because it’s a very slow and serious Swedish film. And though we could draw a perfect connection between the Swedish Thomas and the disciple Thomas, and their struggles with faith (leading to an easy option A “don’t doubt,” or option B, “it’s OK to doubt” sermon), what strikes me is another parallel: the theme of community, so prominent in today’s readings, and prominent by its absence in Pastor Thomas’s life in Winter Light.

The Thomas we meet in the movie has shut himself off from Marta, and from his congregation, at least internally. Because even when he’s present to them, he’s spiritually-absent, not able to really connect, and empathize with what others are going through. And Thomas we meet in the Gospel is similarly cut off from his church community; we’re not sure why, but he’s not there with the other disciples when Jesus first appears.

But Jesus meets Thomas where he’s at; offers his hands and his side, and Thomas comes to believe — without, as he initially said — putting his finger in the mark of the nails, and his hand in his side. And with that he’s brought back into the company of disciples.

Luke narrates in the Acts of the Apostles how this company will grow, and, at least in their early days, the believers were of one heart and soul, taking care of each other. And from the prologue to the First Letter of John, a message about the Church’s fellowship, or relationship, with the Father and Son. Declared to the letter’s readers, the author writes, “so that you also may have fellowship with us.”

And that theme is what connects last week’s Gospel from Mark with this week’s from John. On one level they’re different, in that Mark preserves a tradition that the risen Jesus met the apostles in the north, in Galilee. Our story from John preserves a different story that must have been circulated in the early Church, of an appearance of the risen Jesus on Easter evening, in the south, in Jerusalem. But where the location details might differ, they share a similar meaning: Jesus, last week, in Mark, called his followers out from Jerusalem and back to Galilee. So that they could recover their sense of the mission they had shared with Jesus, and continue in that work. And today, from the Fourth Gospel, Jesus informs his followers: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Just as the Father had sent Jesus to the world, now after the resurrection, Jesus is sending his disciples — which includes us — back into that world. And they’re sent into the world filled with God’s Holy Spirit, so that they can do God’s will, and, as one commentator puts it (in an inspiring but also imposing way): the disciples now “manifest the presence of Jesus to the point that whoever sees the disciples sees Jesus who sent them.” (No pressure.)

So again this week, as we continue along in Easter, we’re left with this message of commissioning, or sending. And this connects our lives as church today, to the experience of the disciples in that locked room. It connects our liturgy to this story about meeting Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, experiencing peace, and receiving and passing on a message of forgiveness. Not all that unlike our Sunday service. Where we pray, that the Spirit would overshadow the bread and wine we offer to God, in faith that they would be made for us, the body and blood of Christ. Where in a bit we’ll hear a prayer for the Holy Spirit to be sent upon the gifts of bread and wine, “that they may be the sacrament of the body of Christ and his blood of the new covenant. Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice, that we, made acceptable in him, may be sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”

So today, rather than default to a “don’t doubt” or “it’s OK to doubt” message, perhaps we could instead focus on the reading’s message of peace and reconciliation. Whether we doubt or don’t doubt, may we find encouragement in how we’ve been called together. And in remembering that we’ve been sent out to live our faith in the world, we might find our, and the faith of others, faith renewed.

May we, who share his body,
live his risen life;
we, who drink his cup,
bring life to others;
we, whom the Spirit lights,
give light to the world.
(BAS p. 214-215)

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter