a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
April 11, 2021
John 20:19-29 NRSV
19 When 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.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So 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.”
26 A 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.” 27 Then 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.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 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.”
Easter has passed. Reports that Jesus is not in the tomb, that he is risen, that some have seen him are passing around among the disciples. John reports one of the first encounters. He is the only writer who reports this particular experience of the risen Christ. It is a story that some would find exciting to imagine or experience, and others would consider “beyond belief.”
We might say Thomas is in the “beyond belief” group. He hears what the other disciples report, but he is shocked, troubled, unsure – who can blame him? Put yourself in his position and imagine hearing what he hears. We don’t know if Thomas witnessed the crucifixion, that terrible, way the Romans had of executing troublemakers in the name of the peace of Rome. But surely he knew how gruesome dying on a cross could be. It was common throughout the Roman Empire and especially around Jerusalem where zealots were often crucified for trying to overthrow the Romans or stir up trouble in other ways. Whether he saw the crucifixion and death of Jesus or not, Thomas surely knew Jesus was dead. So it is no wonder he doubts, not having seen Jesus alive again. Even though Thomas says he “will not believe, unless,” he sees and touches Jesus, we sense that he wants to believe. And so do we, don’t we?
The story of Thomas doubting is a traditional part of the after – Easter Scripture readings. His process of coming to “believe” in the resurrection of Christ is presented as a model for all believers who – as Jesus says at the end – “have not seen [the Risen Christ] and yet have come to believe.”
Let’s be honest. Some things about these resurrection stories are “beyond belief” to a scientific, rational mind. Some of the reports are hard to swallow if you aren’t into spiritual, metaphysical, non-scientific things. How can one believe in resurrection? How can one believe in what is beyond belief?
But what does it mean to “believe?” Too many in the church and outside the church think “believing” simply means knowing what somebody tells them is the right stuff. It used to be summed up in complicated creeds, lectures about a “plan of salvation,” and other teachings. “Belief” seemed like the rules for being members of an exclusive religious social club for those wanting a guarantee that when they die they would “go UP,” instead of going down to “you know where.” While this approach might have “worked” in some ways in years or centuries past, the results of this kind of “belief” have not produced much positive news for churches over the past 30-40 years.
A church consultation group, reported that, “In the newest Gallup poll on religious trends in 2020, U.S. membership in faith communities was below 50% of those polled for the first time in the history of Gallup polling. This is not a new trend. The rate of membership in faith communities has been declining in the US for some time. Membership hovered around 70% when first measured in 1937 right on through the turn of the 21st century.” Now less than 50% claim to be members of a faith community. The writer challenges us with the question, “For those of us in the progressive Christian space, what would happen if we asked what those followers of Jesus need who are not connected with a faith community?” She says what if our concern wasn’t with saving our institutions, but about building a “movement for a just and generous world?” [ Convergenceus.org, April 7, 2021 ]
In other words, if faith is about more than “knowing stuff” and being a member of an exclusive club, what do we want to “believe?” If we believe in what matters, then maybe what people need is what Thomas needed. Not so much to touch the bloody side and hands of HIS flesh, but a real encounter with the Living Christ. And maybe if that matters it isn’t just limited to seeing him in the flesh, but, as I suggested last Sunday -f Jesus lives - I suggested we can see that by going where people are broken and poured out, as Christ did, then “believing” becomes deeply connected to “doing” what Jesus did. Belief - a noun - becomes faith which is a verb. The UCC used to say, to believe is to do, to do is to love. I would add, to love is to be at work for a “just and generous world.”
The church today is seen by nonchurch people more often and widely as a supporter of injustice. It is seen as an institution of a stingy love that is the very opposite of working for a just and generous world. Some may wonder about my deep and passionate commitment to the work of Biblical justice. I know all the arguments against it: it’s socialism, it violates the separation of church and state, it’s not my cup of tea. To borrow a phrase out of season: “bah – humbug.” As we prepare for the annual Nehemiah Assembly I invite you to look at how we have solved large community problems. Our process is the very definition of democracy. We ask everyone to tell us what they see as the biggest problems in our community. We invite everyone to vote on what the biggest problem is. We expect our public servants to pay attention to citizens, to voters, to you and me, not just to their corporate “owners” – thank you SCOTUS for defining corporations as people too that certainly improved democracy and upheld the original meaning of the Constitution. And we hold those public servants accountable to do what is right for all people not just their owners, I mean their donors.
Separation of church and state? Read the Constitution – what it says is: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” And in addition, the First Amendment also says Congress shall make no law prohibiting the people from petitioning “the Government for a redress of grievances.” So our work is the very heart of Constitutional democracy.
To say it isn’t “my cup of tea,” confuses me. Does that mean you are not for justice for all? Does that mean you don’t like it that when we hold our meetings we expect the public servants to abide by our rules, just as we have to obey their rules at their meetings to run OUR government? Does that mean you don’t like tension? Because we do create tension at times when public servants don’t want to answer the question, or want to deflect responsibility from themselves to others, or claim we aren’t respectful. Was Thomas disrespectful in asking to see the same things the other disciples saw? Is it disrespectful to hold public servants accountable to make sure that our government and its tax dollars are spent “for the people,” ALL the people? And by the way, our solutions always are a better, more effective use of our tax dollars than what is currently being done.
So going back to a “more just and generous world,” and to believing in what Jesus does is what we should do. In Jacksonville it is “beyond belief” that many people suffering from mental illness are being put in jail instead of getting treatment. Desperate families call 911 for help when a loved one is having a mental health crisis. Officers respond to 911 calls but they end up using the same techniques on the person in crisis as someone who is resisting arrest. When they use these techniques on mentally ill people, officers end up in fights. It doesn’t work.
We are asking the Sheriff to use a more effective training process. He argues his is better because it trains more officers. But the outcome hasn’t improved. In Miami – Dade County, using the effective form of a training program called “Crisis Intervention Team training” they have reduced the arrest of persons having mental health crises. Here’s the facts: Over a ten-year period they answered 105,000 calls that were related to mental health crises. They arrested less than 200 people. Recidivism was reduced. They were able to close a jail because they didn’t need to jail people with mental health issues. Oh, and they saved the county over 12 million dollars over that period. Beyond belief? No, true. Instead, persons who need help get directed to mental health resources, and more effective outcomes than arresting them. The result in human savings is immense. It has improved officer morale and improved officer safety.
We are asking for the Sheriff to have the National training group to assess what he is doing and make recommendations to improve it. Is that so terrible? If JSO is doing something that isn’t getting any better results, why not do something different? We want to see how we can do better for our JSO officers and for our neighbors who may face a mental health crisis. This isn’t beyond belief, it just makes sense!
If we want to “see Jesus,” and “touch Jesus” like Thomas let us be about the task of touching others with the compassion, the mercy, the love of Jesus. That’s how we can have the kind of encounter with the living Christ that Thomas’ story represents. If we look at the broken hearts and broken lives of others and don’t see the wounds of Jesus’ hands and side and head then we need to look again. That is where we will see the Risen Jesus. That is where we – where the church– needs to be. If we want people to believe that the church is worth their time, their effort, their belief then we better show we are changing the world for good. Otherwise we are just a religious social club, existing only to pat each other on the back and tell each other how much we like each other and love Jesus while the rest of the world suffers and dies on crosses of contemporary injustices.
Thomas wanted to touch Jesus. More importantly, Jesus wants to touch us and change us to make us as committed to act on believing in him as we are to claiming we believe in him. You want to believe? Cool! I believe Jesus wants us to go “beyond belief” to doing. I want the world around us to see that Christians are committed to compassion, to positive change, to ending injustice, to doing what Christ did and does, through those who are willing to go “beyond belief” to living their faith. The Nehemiah Assembly is an easy way to be part of going beyond belief to acting on faith and love and compassion. I hope every one of you will join me in this. Go “beyond belief.” Those first disciples went “beyond belief” to live out the love of Christ for their neighbors. We can too. AMEN.