The Desire for God

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St. Thomas, Maesta Altarpiece, 1308 by Duccio

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 7, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 118:14-29 , Revelation 1:4-8, and John 20:19-31.

People sometimes get frustrated with the Episcopal Church and the fact that our tradition offers a lot of room for interpretation.  Especially confused (and sometimes angered) are those coming from other traditions, in which doctrines and beliefs are more clearly defined and delineated. I think of some of the standard questions such as:

Do Episcopalians believe in the Real Presence of the Jesus in the Sacrament of Holy Communion?  Well–, many do, some don’t, and most probably don’t worry themselves too much about it. 

At what age should children be baptized or begin receiving Communion?  It varies.

How many Sacraments are there, anyway?  Seven or just two?  Well, as our Catechism (way in the back of the Book of Common Prayer) puts it, there are “Two great sacraments” (Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist) and there are other “sacramental rites” which include confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent, and unction.  “Although they are means of grace, they are not necessary for all persons in the same way that Baptism and the Eucharist are” (p. 860).

I know this drives some people crazy.  I also know that it makes our job a lot harder if we’re trying to explain our faith or our tradition.  But I’m grateful for the breadth and generosity of our tradition.  It means there’s room for me.  There’s room for you.  There’s room for just about everybody because God understands we come to faith differently.  God made us that way.

Some people’s faith depends upon signs. Others believe in Jesus without a sign. Some need miracles. Others don’t. Some have faith that is weak, some strong. Some have shallow faith, some have deep faith. These different kinds of faith can be seen especially when we look at the various reactions to the resurrection.

On this second Sunday of Easter, as we continue to reflect on the resurrection and its meaning, as we perhaps notice where we might be on the spectrum of faith and doubt, I think we can draw strength and encouragement the different ways those early disciples came to believe. Let’s think about some of those first witnesses and how they responded to Jesus.

Mary Magdalene had faith that took her to the tomb and she saw the risen Lord through her tears.

The two disciples were walking to Emmaus talked to a stranger.  Their faith led them to extend hospitality, and they saw the risen Lord in the breaking of bread.

Some of the other disciples were fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Their faith led them back to work, and they saw the risen Lord in the midst of their work, and when they reached land, he made them breakfast.

Later, when some of the disciples seemed to lose faith, fear began to take them over. But when they were in a room with locked doors, even through their fear, they saw the risen Lord.

In today’s Reading from the Acts of the Apostles we hear the fiery faith of Peter before the religious leaders of the day. His faith is so strong enough to break him out of prison.  It’s a faith that allows him to go right back into the Temple to preach the news of Jesus resurrection.

In the reading from Revelation, there’s the confident and clever faith of John the Divine.  His faith gave strength to the churches that were struggling, and whose faith still gives us hope in the one who is Alpha and Omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come. It gives faith to anyone who may be in the throes of darkness, disease, warfare, trial of any kind… that in the end, God wins.

And then there is Thomas.

It was not enough for Thomas to hear of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene. It was not enough for him to hear of it from the two who were on the road to Emmaus.

What appears to others like doubt, indecision, even a lack of faith—for Thomas, simply IS his faith. It is a way that was willing to struggle, to look for truth deeply, to weight the evidence, and only then, move forward. His desire for faith, his intention for faith, is what moves him forward.

Jesus had already appeared to the other disciples. He had breathed on them the very Spirit of God and they were spirit-filled. The shared in the resurrection as it brought them new life and filled them with the very life of God, and began to move them out of the locked room into the world. But Thomas had not been with them. “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And so, on the eighth day—the day of new creation, the day beyond the seven days of creation, the day of new possibilities and unimagined miracles—Jesus appears again to the disciples.

Peace be with you, Jesus says. And Jesus offers himself—the resurrected body that still bears the wounds, though they are transformed. The Gospel does not tell us whether Thomas actually touched the wounds. There is room for our imagination. Artists through the ages interpret this scene differently.  Some show Thomas actually poking his finger in the side of Jesus.  Others show a distance between Thomas and Jesus, a little like the distance between God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  That distance is important to remember.  It doesn’t represent separation.  It represents movement toward the other.

What crosses the distance is desire—God’s desire for us, and our desire for God.

Too often, we don’t show our desire to the world.  What they see is the veneer—the rules, the regulations, the barriers, and the hurdles.  At the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has made such a good impression not by any theological precept or doctrine he has expounded about—he’s caught people’s attention by his actions, by imitating Christ, by trying to convey Christ, through his desire to love like Christ.

People say they’re not interested in religion, because they associate religion with the rules and the doctrine.  But, many people say, they are curious about spirituality.  For many of us, religion is the way we practice and grow our spirituality, but the Spirit comes first.

And the Spirit moves from and with and towards DESIRE. 

Thomas, Mary, and all the rest, explored the spiritual by exploring a relationship with the risen Christ.  It’s our relationship with Christ, sometimes simply shown through our relationships with other people, that conveys the love of God in our world.  Our desire for God helps us lean into Christ.  Our desire for love moves us closer to him.  Our desire for justice helps us act like him and with him.  Our desire for freedom helps us view all people through his eyes, as God’s children.

On Palm Sunday we heard a story of faith that should the leading story line of Christianity.  One of the criminals who is being crucified with Jesus asks him from the cross, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus tells him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).

It really is just that simple.  Christ is risen for us all and reveals himself to all who look for him, who hope for him, who desire him.

Christ is risen for the tearful. Christ is risen for the bold. He is risen for the dishonest and lazy, the broken and beyond repair.  Christ is risen for those who are afraid, and he is risen for those who doubt.  The Lord is risen for us all. Alleluia.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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