"Life - Giving Stories"

April 28, 2019

 

LIFE-GIVING STORIES

 

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.’ 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.’ 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.’ 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.

                                          (John 20:19-31, NRSV)

 

Besides my parents and grandparents, the relative my sister, Susan, and I were closest to was Nancy, my mother’s younger sister, whom we called Aunt Nanny. Sadly, she died much too young, before my children could know her.  She played a huge role in our lives because she was so different from our parents.  My parents were born in the late 1930’s, near the end of the Depression whereas Aunt Nanny was for all practical purposes a Baby Boomer.  In a very real sense, they were from two different generations. 

 

Aunt Nanny was the cool aunt who drove an awesome gold and black Chevy SS.  She was our one and only cool relative wearing bell bottoms and using a foldable Polaroid camera.  She was the only one in the family to see “The Godfather” and “The Exorcist.”  She was the one who sat with Susan and me at the kids table during family feasts on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. She was the first family member to travel abroad, (only Mexico, but it counts).  For that matter, she was the first family member to fly in an airplane. 

 

She decided that Susan and I should fly too.  In the mid-1970’s, Aunt Nanny took Susan and me on a Southern Airlines flight from Memphis to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  Not only was this our first time flying, but it was our first time seeing the ocean.  Our motel was across the street from the Gulf of Mexico.  It rained the whole time we were there.  When it merely sprinkled, we ran to the beach, splashed in the water, and collected shells.  It was the shells that became a running joke.  In order to clean them out, we soaked them in steaming hot water.  Unbeknownst to us, there were crabs in the shells who didn’t survive the ordeal.  When we awoke the next morning the dead crabs stunk up the whole room and we had to toss the shells. 

 

Aunt Nanny was a very active volunteer at the Memphis Zoo and was able to snag a spot for her niece and nephew.  A favorite memory was looking after Ben and Clyde, two Clydesdale horses that had helped pull the Budweiser wagon.  And being the cool aunt, she bought us stuff our parents never would. Without fail, she bought me every Steve Martin album with the warning, “Don’t let your parents or grandparents hear this or we’ll all get in trouble!”  Being in early middle school, there were some jokes I didn’t understand but understood enough to know this was something my Southern Baptist parents should never hear.  One of her lasting gifts was a classic Winnie the Pooh that became Matthew’s favorite stuffed animal for years…well actually he still loves it even though he’s almost 22 and living on his own.  My children will never have the pleasure of meeting Aunt Nanny on this side of eternity, but they are getting to know her through stories we’ve told time and again.     

 

            The same holds true for the women and men who fill the pages of scripture.  We meet them through stories.  We get acquainted with Abraham, Sara, and Hagar through the soap opera births of Ishmael and Isaac.  We get to know David as he battles Goliath with stones and a slingshot.  We get to meet Ruth as she looks after her mother-in-law, Naomi.  The same holds true for Jesus.  We get to know him through the stories.

 

            Author and Presbyterian minister, Frederick Buechner, writes, “What struck me more than anything else as I reacquainted myself with this remarkable rag-bag of people [in the Bible] was both their extraordinary aliveness and their power to make me feel somehow more alive myself for having known them.  Across all the centuries, they still have the power to bring tears to the eyes and send shivers up the spine.  And more besides.  Saints and scoundrels, nabobs and nobodies, they galvanize…the pages [of scripture].”[1] 

 

            Episcopal priest and seminary professor, Barbara Brown Taylor, echoes a similar sentiment saying, “A good story does not just tell you about something that happened once upon a time.  It brings that time back to life so that you can walk around in it and experience it for yourself…That is the power of the word, and when the word concerns Jesus, that power becomes God’s power.”[2]  

  

            Today’s story about Thomas is one such story.  It is a living story.  Through it we not only get to know this doubting disciple, but we get to know the resurrected Christ better too.  Rather than label him doubting Thomas, perhaps we should call him honest Thomas.  The story about Thomas and Jesus in the Upper Room speaks to the disciple’s honesty.  When Jesus ate the last supper with the disciples the night before he died, he wanted to give them a glimpse of the turbulent events on the horizon.  Jesus almost broke their hearts in speaking of his imminent death.  “But,” Jesus said, “I will not be leaving you forever.  After I make it to my destination I’ll get everything ready for you and we’ll be together again.”  “Until then,” he said, “you know the way that I am going and one day you’ll be there with me.”

 

            Befuddled, the disciples looked at each other in confusion, but honest Thomas couldn’t contain himself.  “Just hold it right there Jesus.  We haven’t a clue about where you’re going so there’s no way we know how to get there,” Thomas exclaimed.  Jesus looked compassionately at him and said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Buechner writes, “Although Thomas let it go at that, you can’t help feeling that he found the answer less than satisfactory.  Jesus wasn’t a way, he was a man, and it was too bad he so often insisted on talking in riddles.”[3]  Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “[Thomas] was not…a follower—at least not automatically.  He was a brave and literal-minded maverick who could be counted on to do the right thing, but only after he had convinced himself that it was the right thing.”[4]

 

            The story of Thomas’ reaction to Christ’s mysterious words in the Upper Room reveal much about what made this disciple tick.  He risked looking foolish in front of the other disciples in order to speak the truth.  He wasn’t afraid to admit when he didn’t understand something.  This story also foreshadows Thomas’ reaction to hearing rumors about the so-called resurrection in today’s scripture lesson.

 

            This story begins behind locked doors that the disciples assumed would keep anybody and everybody out.  It was Easter evening, Peter and John had seen the empty tomb that morning, but had not encountered the risen Christ.  For all they knew the Romans or the religious Gestapo had confiscated Christ’s body.  Only Mary Magdalene claimed to have seen Jesus with her own two eyes.  The disciples shook in fear instead of rejoicing in faith, not that we can blame them.  Sometimes we too feel hopeless, devoid of faith.  But Jesus could not leave his friends in this sad state anymore than he can leave us to drown in our despair. 

 

            So he appeared, inexplicably and miraculously he appeared to them behind the locked doors and shuttered windows.  He appeared and spoke the most astonishing words—not I’m so disappointed in you, not shame on you, not how could you abandon me.  No.  He wasn’t interested in words of condemnation, but instead in healing words of love.  “Peace be with you.  Peace be with you.”  In these loving words, in his healing presence, the transformation of the disciples began.  Jesus gave them a second chance.  He filled them with the Holy Spirit so they could follow closely, live faithfully, and work tirelessly to accomplish God’s purpose in the world.

 

            Thomas missed the whole encounter.  Was he taking a walk around the block?  Had he run down to the corner store for some milk or a loaf of bread?  We don’t know.  All we know is that Thomas missed the single most important event in the disciples’ lives.  “Oh well,” Honest Thomas said, “Sorry guys.  No offense, but unless I see him with my own two eyes, I just can’t believe you.” 

 

            A week passed and Jesus was nowhere to be found.  With each passing day Thomas felt vindicated.  Quite unexpectedly, the eighth day was different; the eighth day changed the course of Thomas’ life forever.  This time the disciples gathered behind shut doors, not locked though.  Thomas sat around with his friends talking about the weather when suddenly, out of the blue, Jesus appeared, looked straight into Thomas’ frightened eyes and said, “Peace be with you.”  No harsh words.  No condemnation—just simple, yet powerful words. Jesus wasn’t going to leave Thomas out and gave him the opportunity to see for himself, that he too might believe. 

 

            A UCC pastor imagined this scene and wrote:  “Whenever we’re afraid and hiding out, all locked up, God comes to us in the midst of our fear and says, ‘Peace be with you.’ Whatever doubts churn in our minds, whatever [bad choices] trouble our consciences, whatever pain and worry bind us up, whatever walls we have put up or doors we have locked securely, God comes to us and says, ‘Peace be with you.’”[5]

 

            Beyond offering peace to Thomas, Jesus spoke words for you and me saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29b).  None of us have seen the risen Christ, and yet through these powerful biblical stories we have come to believe.  Those who were lucky enough to see the risen Christ shared their stories with others.  Eventually someone wrote the stories down.  Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Scripture is the message our ancestors rolled up and put in a bottle for us, because they wanted us to experience the person of Jesus—if not in the flesh, then in the word…Millions have discovered him, not in the flesh but in the stories, which have a way of jumping off the page…Jesus is still alive in them, with power to make us weep, rejoice, hope, act.  Maybe that is why we call both him and the stories about him the living word of God.”[6]

 

            My children never met Aunt Nanny, but they’re getting to know her through stories.  I’ve never met Jesus in the flesh, but I’ve gotten to know him through stories.  My children never met Jesus either, but they did in a sense.  In Sunday School, in Confirmation class, in youth retreats, in service trips, and in Sunday services, they’ve met Jesus the same way I did, the same way you did, in the powerful, life-giving stories of the Bible. 

 

            Christ the Lord is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia.  AMEN.

 

 

 

 

Written by Rev. Jimmy Only

Second Sunday of Easter

April 28, 2019

The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)

 

 

 

 

PASTORAL PRAYER

 

God of ceaseless new beginnings, we rejoice that through your powerful love Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.  In the resurrection you have shown that neither trouble nor persecution, hardship nor poverty, danger nor death can separate us from your love.  Free us to trust in you that we may live in confidence as your children.  Through the presence of Jesus Christ among us, draw us into a community of freedom, hope, and love.  Work your new creation among us that we may serve you without fear.……. through Jesus Christ our risen Savior. AMEN.

 

Adapted from Book of Worship United Church of Christ, p. 497.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, author’s notes

 

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way, pp. 116-117

 

[3] Buechner, p. 165

 

[4] Taylor, p. 114

 

[5] www.textweek.com

6Taylor, p. 117

 

 

 

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