Saturday, April 24, 2010

See-It-Myself Thomas

A sermon preached at the Metropolitan Community Church of Hartford, Connecticut April 11, 2010
(c) 2010 by The Rev. Dr. Joan M. Saniuk
Text: John 20:19-31

This morning’s gospel tells about Jesus’ second appearance to his disciples after the Resurrection. We usually refer to this pericope as the story of “Doubting Thomas.” Thomas is the one holdout among the disciples who refuses to believe in the Resurrection just on the word of the others. I need to see it for myself, he says. Thomas needs to see and touch Jesus’ raised body before he will believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And lo and behold, Jesus gives Thomas that opportunity!

The usual interpretation of this story has Jesus scolding Thomas for his lack of faith. Jesus says, “You believe because you have seen. Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.”
The author of the Fourth Gospel uses these words of Jesus to set up these closing words, the words that marked the original end of the Fourth Gospel: “Jesus did many more signs and wonders, more than are written in this book; but these have been written so that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and by believing, have life in Jesus’ name.”

Thomas makes a sort of bridge between those who were eyewitnesses to Jesus, and those of us who only know of Jesus through this and the other three Gospel stories. We haven’t seen Jesus in person, yet we believe. This is a good message, and a true one. And having said that, I want to suggest for us this morning that Thomas is a very good model for us. Instead of “Doubting Thomas”, I like to think of him as “See-It-For-Myself” Thomas. Like Mary Magdalene, who did not believe that Jesus had been raised until she heard him call her by name, Thomas needed to experience the risen Christ for himself. I believe, in fact, that each of us needs to experience, and does experience, the Holy One and the living Christ for ourselves.

That personal experience of God, of Christ, is one of the four foundations of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. For the last few years, I have been teaching teenagers and ‘tweenagers’ Sunday School at my neighborhood church north of Boston, and I have told them about John Wesley’s teaching that revelation has a four-sided foundation of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. I explain it by saying that it is all very well and good to know the Bible, the tradition, and theology, but there is something missing if we don't also have an experience of God in our hearts. Furthermore, as Reverend Elder Nancy Wilson likes to remind us, any one of the four elements of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience can critique the other three!

I am convinced that this personal experience, with its ability to critique Scripture and tradition, is particularly important for those of us who are LGBTQ and supportive people, as a people for whom sexual expression and gender identity and sexual orientation are not an issue. We especially need to know, and trust, our experiences when we so often hear Scripture and Tradition quoted back at us in a way that demonizes us. We need to have experiences to hold on to, and to remember, at those times when our adversaries foolishly dismiss our experiences as wrong-headed, tragically mistaken, or other variations on the word “false,” because they can’t get their minds or hearts around the notion that being gay, or lesbian, or trans, or bi, or supportive of the same is not a barrier to God’s love and acceptance. In those times, it is especially important to remember and to own what we have seen for ourselves, what we know for ourselves, of God’s presence and God’s love.

Like Mary, and like Thomas, we have sensed and we have known God’s presence with us. We have felt and we have recognized the presence of the living Christ in our midst. When and where has it happened for you? When did it happen for the first time, that you knew without a doubt that God loved you and that Christ was with you? Maybe it was in childhood, when you learned to sing “Jesus loves me, this I know,” and knew for a fact that it was true. Or maybe it was when you made your First Communion, when after weeks or even months of preparation, you received Jesus into your heart and felt that deep peace, when you knew you that the Holy One was with you.

Troy Perry tells some of his stories in his books "The Lord Is My Shepherd And He Knows I’m Gay" and "Don’t Be Afraid Any More". He tells of hearing God, in the form of that “still, small voice” that he received in prayer, telling him that the time to start his new church is "Now". Troy recollects the time in prayer when God said in his heart, “Don’t you tell me what I can and cannot do. I don’t have any stepchildren!”

When have you heard or seen God? When and where have you encountered the living Christ? I know where I’ve seen God: just this morning, in the kind born-again Christian guy who works at the Willington rest stop and who gave me a ride into church when it became clear that Sharilyn and I would be stranded there for a while. I’ve seen the face of Christ in the gay man who invited me to follow Jesus by feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. I've seen Christ's healing power in the friends who cared for me when I was deathly ill, ar at my most despondent.

I remember one General Conference, when I was new to MCC, when I felt like running away screaming from this crazy church, where I was told we would be singing “the songs that everyone knows” and I not only didn’t know any of them, I didn’t like any of them! But when it came time for communion, the lesbian minister who prayed with me brought a word -- and I don’t remember what she said, but I remember what the message was -- that I was right where I was supposed to be.

I know the power of God who is guiding my life still, and I know that She didn’t bring me this far just to drop me on my head. I have known the joy, at my mother’s funeral two years ago, of the assurance that Mom, like Christ, has risen in a place where there is no more sorrow or pain. And, yes, I know the presence and the love of God through the love that my spouse, Sharilyn, has for me. I never really understood what unconditional love could be like, until I experienced it from Sharilyn. No matter how stupid I can be, she still loves me. It amazes me. And now I can understand God’s love.

Where have you seen God? Where have you met the living Christ? Remember it; for we who have seen for ourselves have a good reason to believe. We who have seen for ourselves have a knowledge that is deep and true, that cannot be shaken by the thoughtless words of others who think they know us better than God does. And if by chance you have not had that personal experience of God’s power in your life, I pray that right here, right now, or sometime in this week when you least expect it, you will have an undeniable sign of God’s presence with you and Christ’s love for you. After all, the disciples gathered in the Upper Room didn’t believe that Jesus was risen, until he appeared in their midst. Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize Jesus in that garden, until Jesus called her by her name: “Mary.” And then she knew. Thomas said he needed to see it for himself... and Jesus obliged him. Would Jesus, would God, do any less for us?

Remember: What we have seen for ourselves, what we know for ourselves, is the truth we can hold on to. This truth, what we have seen and heard for ourselves, is the foundation of our testimony and the bedrock of our faith. And so we can say, in the words of First John, as arranged by Gregory Norbet:

“Something that is known to have been from the beginning,
“This we have heard, and seen with our own eyes;
“Something we have touched and have care-fully watched,
“The Word, Who is life: this we share with you.
“Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia.”

May God’s outrageous love and blessing fill your lives this week. AMEN.

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