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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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After the "Unless"

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: doubt, confirmation, thomas, unless

April 24, 2022  •  The Second Sunday of Easter

Emmanuel Church, Geneva

Text: John 20:25: “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.” 

I know at least one thing that you don’t, which is how much is involved in our liturgy this morning, and how much the young people who are about to be baptized and confirmed have to say to you about their faith journeys and your place in it. So I am going to keep this pretty short, and if you don’t pay attention you might just miss it—so—ready? Here goes.

All of us with any experience of the church know a couple of things about the Sunday after Easter. We know that there won’t be nearly as many people in church as there were the week before. And we know that there is one lesson we will absolutely hear again, the same lesson we hear every year on the Sunday after Easter: the story of Saint Thomas the Apostle. 

One of the dangers of that predictability, the fact we come here expecting to hear it, is that we don’t listen to it; it kind of glances off of us, because we’re pretty sure we already know what it means. Jesus comes, but Thomas isn’t there to see him. The other disciples tell him what has happened, but he won’t believe it; he wants to see it with his own eyes. 

And so later, when he is there, Jesus returns again, and Thomas sees, and believes; and then Jesus teaches them, and us, something about the importance of believing without seeing.

We know all that, right? Is that all there is to this story?

In a book published just last year, the theologian David Ford calls the story we just heard a “God-sized event.” A God-sized event? Do we really hear it that way? 

And he goes on to say this: “The theological essence of the resurrection and of the whole Gospel is encapsulated here, involving the body of Jesus, God, and faith.”

Um, gosh. Maybe there’s something more here we should pay attention to?

Sisters and brothers, we could spend a very profitable hour just exploring the meaning of this story, and the way it reveals the whole of the theology of John’s gospel. But we can’t do that today, so here is one thing to hang on to. It’s that word, “Unless.” “Unless I see…”

Because all of the other disciples had the first experience, and Thomas did not, it’s only from Thomas that we hear these words. But that hardly means the other disciples were somehow more faithful. We don’t know how they would have reacted if they had been away that first Sunday evening. Maybe they would have had an “unless,” too. Don’t you think Peter would have had an “unless”?

We have all just been through the drama of Holy Week and the joy of Easter. We’ve just had all of that. And yet there is still a war in Ukraine; there are still people dying from Covid; there are still refugees right here among us seeking help and safety, vulnerable to persecution and trafficking, and subjected to racist hate in countries across Europe. Does any of that give you an “unless”?

Unless I see that God’s love really does make a difference in the world, I will not believe. Unless I see that the hearts of the people who are making this bloody war can be transformed, I will not believe. Unless I am sure that my Christian faith won’t get me suspicious looks from my neighbors or harm my professional career, I will not believe – at least not publicly. Unless, unless, unless.

What’s your “unless”? What’s your condition, your test?

The people around us, the people who pass by this place when we gather here to worship, they have a lot of Unless. Maybe they are Thomas—maybe if they saw the body of the risen Jesus, if they heard him talking and saw him acting in the world, maybe then they would believe.

But friends—that is who we are. That is who we are supposed to be. We are the body of Christ, raised, re-membered, alive. Wounded, yes. Rejected, yes. Misunderstood, oh, yes. But alive.

We are the answer to the world’s Unless. We are the presence of God’s love that intends to accept, include, forgive, reconcile, restore. 

But we can only be that answer, that presence, if we act in faith, and not in fear.

There are two true things about Thomas’s story that are just as true for us today. The first is that those apostles who have that experience of Jesus’s presence among them testify to that experience, and their testimony is true. It is a truth that stands against all doubt. What they told Thomas, what we tell the world, is true: Jesus is the presence of God in this world, the only God, the God who is love and intends to love us back into the people we are meant to be, not the people the world thinks we’re supposed to be.

And here is the second thing that is true: Thomas missed the first opportunity to hear this truth because he wasn’t in church. Hearing the truth about God means making and keeping a commitment to be among God’s people, to be a part of the fragile, frustrating, loving, graceful communities we are meant to make.

Friends, the bishop is not your teacher this morning. I am just here to tell you what to pay attention to. Your teachers this morning are ten young people who stand among you as Christians who no longer have an “unless.” They have no conditions. They have no qualifications. They are all in. 

They believed the truth they found shared here, in the church. They listened to your testimony about God’s living, healing presence in the world today, and they believed you.

And, unlike Thomas, they showed up in church. They’ve been showing up in church. Whatever happens next, they don’t want to miss it. And so they are here. And by the confession they make today, they are telling you that they intend to stay here.

At the end of the story we get Thomas’s response to that unimaginable moment when he gets his wish and sees Jesus: “My Lord and my God!” When he says that, he is echoing the very first assertion made in the gospel of John, the very first claim of the story: “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” At the end of the story it is the voice of Thomas, doubting Thomas, that brings the whole story comes to its completion. 

But remember this. Do you know who else people referred to that way in Jesus’s time? Who else expected people to address them, to regard them, as Lord and God? The emperor. The man in Rome with all the power, or at least what he thought was power.

When Thomas says these words, he’s doing more than stating a truth. He’s starting a movement. He is the first revolutionary. He is saying that the powers of this world have no claim on him higher than the God who lived, died, and was raised in Christ.

Be in no doubt that there are leaders in our world today who demand to be regarded as lord and God. Who demand authority over every aspect of human life—over not just their people’s hopes, not just their physical bodies, but over their beliefs—power over their conscience. 

To be a Christian in those places is to be a dangerous person, because it is to claim a kind of freedom given by God that can never be taken away or controlled by any power of this world. It is to say that our primary source of identity lies not in our nationality, not in our ethnicity, not in our race or our language or anything else, but in our baptism—in our being part of the body of Christ.

Be in no doubt that there are leaders determined to shut that dangerous possibility down completely.

Before you stand ten people today who know all that, and despite all that have no “unless.” No conditions. How about you? Will you follow their example?

May God grant that, by Christ dwelling in your heart by faith, you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Amen.