Archive for December, 2016

“My Lord and My God!” (December 21, 2016: Feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle)

Posted in Sermons on December 22, 2016 by montgomerybrandt

The following sermon was preached at the 6:00pm Healing Eucharist on December 21, 2016, being the Feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle, at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Collect: Everliving God, who strengthened Your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in Your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in Your sight; through Him who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Reading: John 20.24-29

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”—John 20.29[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Directly above the High Altar at New York City’s Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue is a sculptural depiction of today’s Gospel.  In it are representations of each essential character: the Apostles to whom Jesus appeared on Easter, Thomas, and Jesus Himself.  All of the Apostles, except Thomas, are fully visible, five on both the right and left sides.  In the center is Thomas, somewhat seen, yet partially hidden in the dark, kneeling before the risen Christ.  What makes this depiction so emotional is seeing the right hand of the partially hidden Thomas extended out and raised up in clear view toward the fully visible risen Christ.  It is an artistic rendering of Thomas’s elation: “My Lord and my God!”

There are two other times, apart from today’s Gospel, all from that of Saint John, that we specifically hear from Saint Thomas.  First, when Jesus announces to the Apostles His intent to go back to Bethany to resurrect His friend Lazarus, whereas the majority say, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” it is Thomas who says, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him,” signaling a high level of courageous devotion.[2]  Next, during the Last Supper, when Jesus says that He is going away, Thomas objects, saying, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”[3]  But it is today’s Gospel for which Thomas is most well-known, for doubting his fellow Apostles’ claim to having seen Jesus in fullness of body and divinity raised from death, only to believe them upon seeing Jesus risen with his very own eyes.

Thomas’s moniker, “Doubting Thomas,” is, in my view, quite unfortunate, in that he has oftentimes been unfairly criticized for expressing a genuine human emotion, as if in his doubt he was denying Jesus’ very existence.  It was not Jesus Himself who Thomas was doubting, but rather his fellow Apostles’ intense insistence to having seen Jesus, dead just three days earlier, again in clear sight, raised and alive.  “Thomas was not with them when Jesus [first] came.  So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’”  To question such a breach of natural law, seeing a man once dead again completely alive, begs some understanding, especially considering Thomas’s absence from the Apostles that first Easter Day.

What is Thomas’s response?  Until I have seen in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand into His side, I will not believe.”[4]  It is that first word, “until,” that is crucial and conveys much.  Though he doubts his fellow Apostles’ assertion, Thomas is also open to the possibility that it may actually be true.  For three years, Thomas walked with Jesus, saw Him perform marvelous miracles, conveying hope in the midst of despair, and loved Him.  Thomas is grieving that the Teacher he loved so much was taken away, killed, and, in his mind, is gone forever.  Yet his openness to the possible truth of the Apostles’ witness signifies the yearning Thomas still has for Jesus, a small glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, they are right and all is not lost.

It is in that glimmer of hope in the midst of doubt that Jesus comes to Thomas.  “Put your finger here, and see My hands,” Jesus says, “and put out your hand, and place it in My side.  Do not disbelieve, but believe.”  Caravaggio’s early 17th century painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas has the Apostle graphically inserting his index finger into the gaping wound on Jesus’ side.  Yet today’s Gospel does not say that Thomas actually does this.  From the way that it reads, for Thomas, just the sight of Jesus Himself is enough: “My Lord and my God!”  What Jesus next says not only proved pivotal for Thomas in that current moment, but for all others yet to come: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Going back to that sculptural depiction above the High Altar at Saint Thomas Church, New York, I cannot help thinking that the sculptor[5], in the representation of the parish’s patron, was making a particular artistic point.  It is as if the partially hidden Thomas, with only his right hand extended out and raised up in clear view to the risen Christ, not only represents himself, but all people who hope in the midst of doubt.  It recognizes doubt as a legitimate human emotion that all of us have suffered (or will suffer) at one point or another, that it is nothing for which we should feel ashamed.  The risen Christ, in clear view for all to see, communicates the Gospel truth, that in our seeking of and openness to receiving the Truth, Jesus comes.  And when Jesus comes, we become changed, a new creation; the old passes away, the new enters in.[6]  Saint Thomas’s song becomes our own song: “My Lord and my God!”

With December 21 every year being Saint Thomas’s feast day, you will notice that it occurs during the latter days of Advent, four days before the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas.  To celebrate this feast during this time helps reinforce the message and hope conveyed in Advent

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.  And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.  And His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.  He shall not judge by what His eyes see, or decide disputes by what His ears hear, but with righteousness He shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”[7]

Because of Saint Thomas, we can have courage to hold fast to our hope. He helps confirm that we have no reason to fear.  He helps to show that the Word of God is, indeed, true.  Jesus Christ is coming, coming to save you and to save me.  “Do not disbelieve, but believe…Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

[2] John 11.1-16

[3] John 14:1-7

[4] The New Community Bible, copyright © 2008 by the Bombay Saint Paul Society.

[5] Lee Oscar Lawrie (1877-1963), one of America’s foremost architectural sculptors of the first half of the 20th century.

[6] 2 Corinthians 5.17

[7] Isaiah 11.2-4.