Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
On this second Sunday of Easter we read Thomas’ story. We read it in all three lectionary cycles, making it the ONLY one of the post-resurrection stories that we hear every single year. The story includes Jesus’ breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples, but most of the content of the story is about Thomas.
I saw a cartoon online this week that illustrates the fact that poor Thomas seems to be indelibly linked to this story of his questioning the other disciples’ report of Jesus’ resurrection. In the cartoon, he is addressing two other disciples: “They don’t call you “Denying Peter”, or “Ran-away-naked Mark”. Why can’t I catch a break?”
So I want to spend some time with the Thomas story, but first, I ask you to take a brief side trip with me, to pause and take note of John’s statement that when Jesus came among the disciples, the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews. The Evangelist John speaks about “the Jews” 71 times in his gospel, almost always in a negative light. By contrast, the other three gospels counted together refer to “the Jews” 16 times: Matthew, Mark, and Luke are more inclined to refer specific groups of Jewish leaders such as the Pharisees, or the Priests and Scribes as opponents of Jesus.
John was written at a time when there was very significant animosity between the Jewish Christians following Jesus, including John’s community, and those Jews who remained loyal to Jewish tradition and did not recognize Jesus as the Promised One. Scholars generally agree that John’s negativity toward “the Jews” is a reflection of this dynamic characterizing the time when John’s Gospel took shape.
I think it’s important to notice and remind myself of this every time I come across John’s bias. Such claims as “the Jews killed Jesus” have fueled antisemitism throughout history, and I think it is important for us to be very intentional in recognizing and rejecting those roots of anti-semitic prejudice found in Christian scripture.
But back to Thomas!
Here’s what I want to suggest: It’s time to rethink Thomas. Everything we have known about Thomas up to this point in the story tells us that he is a pragmatist, a realist, and a truth-teller. He is the one who, when Jesus was going to raise Lazarus, urged the disciples to go with him even though, he pointed out, it might mean their own deaths. And then in Chapter 14, when Jesus is telling the disciples where he is going when he dies and assure them that they know where this is, it is Thomas who is willing to speak up and admit that they have no clue what Jesus is talking about. He is just not into the mystical stuff.
On that afternoon of the third day – and notice that whereas WE are a week into Easter season, John’s story takes place the very day that the disciples have heard Mary’s story of seeing Jesus in the garden – the disciples are together, locked in together because they are frightened. But Thomas is not with them.
Where is he? John doesn’t tell us. Bishop Fisher published a column this week in which asserts his belief that Thomas is out on the streets carrying on with Jesus’ ministry of mercy, compassion, and hope. I’m not sure I’m that optimistic.
I do think that in his pragmatic way Thomas is doing what he can to get on with life. I think he’s trying to figure out what comes next and is probably just someone who does his thinking best outside, on the move. Thomas is grieving, absorbing and processing the memories of Jesus’ terrible death, and with his death, the end of the hopes and dreams Thomas nurtured during his time with Jesus. He’s working on seeing a new alternative. (Maybe the Bishop is right and he’s out feeding the hungry – I could be wrong.)
So when he gets back to the disciples’ lodgings, and hears that they, too, have seen Jesus, he doesn’t just doubt, he honestly can’t believe it. It is too implausible, too much. I think his remark about seeing and feeling Jesus’ wounds is not so much a serious request as it is a statement of how absurd he finds his friends claims to be. I think his statement is the equivalent of saying “Yeah, I’ll believe it when pigs fly.”
But, of course, Thomas’ perspective does change. The risen Christ appears to him, too, in the very same place, a week later. Jesus comes to Thomas in the flesh, offering the very wounds that Thomas has claimed to want to see without ever believing that he might.
Thomas the realist, the pragmatist, has his entire understanding of reality upended. What he never imagined to be possible is actually true and undeniable. Thomas discovers that his reality was much too small, and his vision much too limited. In seeing and hearing from the risen Christ he is given a new understanding of what is possible, of what God can do. He does not hesitate before declaring “My Lord and my God.”
I get Thomas. I try to be practical, and I tend to be a realist, and this often results in my seeing the limitations rather than the possibilities. I don’t thinki I’m alone in this. I think that often when we “expect the worst” even as we “hope for the best”, we do so to protect ourselves from disappointment. We don’t want to be let down. We want to be prepared for the things that can harm us so that perhaps they won’t cause us pain.
I remember years ago when I was teaching having an advisee who was trying out for a readership position that I was quite certain she wouldn’t get. I was worried about how her self-confidence would be undermined. I tried to – in a gentle way – lay the groundwork for rationalizing the rejection I expected her to be facing. I remember telling her that sophomores are almost never selected for something like this, and that I was confident that she’d be chosen in another year or two, if not now. I was soon astonished, because she was chosen!
How might life be different, for those of us who tend to expect things to be the way we’ve always known them, if our minds and hearts could remember and trust that God’s abundant grace is always ready to surprise us? What miracles await our discovery?
When Jesus calls Thomas to faith, Jesus is inviting Thomas into a greater vision. He calls him to focus on possibility rather than failure, on abundance rather than scarcity, on forgiveness and reconciliation rather than on the burden of remembered offenses.
Can we dare to think large? Can we look beyond our fears and our discouragement to trust in God’s grace that, working through us, can do more than we ask or imagine?
God give us the grace to do so.
Rev. Molly Scherm
I saw a piece on television last week that has lain heavily on my heart throughout this week, particularly as I have been anticipating the remembrance of J’ Passion that we will take part in throughout this Holy Week, beginning today.
The piece that moved me was a 60 Minutes segment with reporter Sharyn Alfonsi interviewing the group of student leaders from Stoneman Douglas High School who organized the March for Our Lives that took place yesterday.
We all know the story, by now, of how on February 14 a former student of the high school in Parkland, Florida entered the school with an AR 15 assault weapon and shot students and teachers, killing 17, including 14 students.
Something was different about this mass shooting, as compared to so many others we have endured in recent decades. The student leaders who survived the incident and began articulating their grief and outrage with passion have ignited what seems to be a new moment of momentum in the debate over gun violence. In particular, they have activated a movement of youth activism like nothing we have seen in a long time.
That movement and the demonstrations that took place yesterday are apowerful and important story, but not what is on my mind this morning. What tore at my heart in last week’s 60 Minutes interview was glimpsing the cost, to those young people, of the cause they have taken on.
In what might have been a time focused on college acceptance letters and the school play, they are grieving for their classmates - both those who were killed and others who have been wounded in ways that will change their lives.
Having caught the nations’ attention with their passionate words and having taken on responsibility for a movement they neither planned nor intended, they have been buried in national attention – both positive and negative. They have been overwhelmed with financial support for
their cause and are they are dealing with both offers of unconditional assistance AND offers from those who would exploit them, and they are having to distinguish which is which.
They have had donated a space from which to organize their efforts, but have had to keep the location secret, because of the death threats they have received.
Emma Gonzalez is the young woman with the buzz cut who has frequently served as the face of the students’ movement. She admits to worrying about having a bomb come through the window.
When Reporter Sharyn Alfonsi asked her “Did you ever think, "I don't wanna get into this. This is a nasty fight that I don't wanna be in the middle of"?
Gonzalez answered: “I have no choice because there were-- there were CNN cameras there. My speech was broadcast all over the country in, like, four seconds, and I had no idea they were going to be there. I'm not upset at that. I'm just never going to be the same person again.”
It is these words of this young woman who, along with her classmates, is taking on the nation – it is this young woman’s story that has been on my mind as I contemplate Jesus, riding a donkey into the streets of Jerusalem, facing both those who welcomed what they thought he would bring them and those who wanted - and would - silence his voice.
Those who have a vision of a different world and dare to challenge the status quo of those who hold power are always going to be at risk. So often they speak for those of us who lead quieter lives, who long for the better world but are too busy with our own day-to-day to invest ourselves fully in the work for change.
The story of Jesus triumphant entry and of his arrest, trial and tragic death provide the stark contrast and juxtaposition that characterize Holy Week – enthusiastic celebration followed by heart-wrenching sorrow. In our liturgy, this contrast is reflected in two hymns traditionally associated with Palm Sunday, both of which we sing this morning.
As we held our palms at the beginning of our service, re-enacting the entry into Jerusalem, we sang “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” It’s is a hymn of exaltation, of praise, for the kingship of Jesus that was declared by the citizens of Jerusalem as Jesus made his way into the city.
Our recessional hymn, which we will sing as we conclude our service this morning and move toward the events of Holy Week, is “Ride on, Ride On in Majesty.” I encourage you to note the very different tone and content of this second Palm Sunday hymn. While the first sings of gloryand praise, the second recognizes the painful irony of Jesus’ ride, and the desolation that he must have felt, knowing in essence, if not in particular, how his journey must end. The hymn acknowledges the true meaning of Jesus’ ride: “Ride on, ride on in majesty…In lowly pomp ride on to die…. Bow thy meek head to mortal pain…The last and fiercest strife is nigh.”
In the moments that you have in your busy week to pray and meditate on the events of Holy Week, I encourage you to lift up in your remembrance the generous and courageous commitment of Jesus in surrendering to the world’s evil in order that we might be free. He faced confrontation with the self-serving impulses of the human being who plotted against him, who rejected his message of justice, service, compassion, inclusion and forgiveness. He faced up to their scape-goating violence to demonstrate for us the triumphant power of love. He chose, and in so doing, demonstrated for us acceptance, trust, and letting go, rather than domination and power-over. He did it painfully and alone. He did it that we might have life, and have it in abundance, by following in his way.
The world and we humans who inhabit it are still driven by our fears and by the impulse to control not only our own lives but, often enough, to control one another in order to ensure our own safety and self-interest. God’s dream, by way of contrast, is that of a world of of mutual acceptance, of compassion, of respect for human dignity, of generosity, of peace.
As we look around us at the struggles playing out in today’s world, let us take note of the work being done by those who put themselves on the line for our benefit, who by their words and witness are working to change the world, and let us pledge ourselves to standing with them in whatever ways we can.
As we enter into this Holy Week and remember the courage and love that saved us, let us pray that our own courage and love can be part of the healing of the world.
Rev. Molly Scherm
This week and next, Heather and I decided to do something we’ve talked about several times – offering an Instructed Eucharist: we will pause several times during the service to share information about the origins and meanings of what we do in our worship. Next week Heather will offer a sequential explanation of the service, and this morning I’ll offer information about some of the things that we most frequently get asked about.
The Holy Eucharist (also called the Mass, the Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper,) has been the central act of Christian worship since New Testament times. In it we give thanks — the Greek word eucharistia, means thanksgiving — as we celebrate God’s saving acts in our world, particularly God’s revelation of God’s self in the life of Jesus, the Christ.
One of the things people notice about worship in the Episcopal tradition is the frequency with which we move around and utilize physical gestures. The late Robin Williams included in his list of the top ten reasons to be an Episcopalian “Pew Aerobics” – our tendency to stand up, sit down, and kneel at various times. As a general rule, we stand to praise God or focus particular attention, we sit to listen and/or reflect, and we kneel to express humility and penitence.
Many people also use personal gestures of devotion such as bowing, crossing themselves, raising their hands, or genuflecting – briefly touching one knee to the ground. These gestures are ways of praying with our bodies. They have a variety of symbolic meanings to those who practice them, and if you ask two people what a particular gesture signifies, you may hear two different explanations; what is important is that they are all ways of making worship more meaningful for the worshipper by acknowledging that in this place we are remembering and coming close to the Sacred.
There’s no “right” way to use our bodies in worship and using or not using particular gestures doesn’t indicate anything more than individual preference.
Another practice in our worship is our use of vestments. The white robe worn by clergy and, in our services in the main sanctuary, other members of the altar party, is a cassock-alb. Believe it or not, the word “alb” comes from a latin word meaning “white thing”: the alb is derived from the basic tunics worn during the years of the early church, and have been preserved.
Over the alb, ordained clergy wear a stole – priests wear it around the neck, and deacons over one shoulder. A similar garment, a scarf or “tippet” is not a Eucharistic vestment – clergy may wear a black tippet for non-sacramental prayer services, and lay preachers wear a blue “preaching scarf”.
The celebrant – the priest who presides at the Eucharist – may also wear a Chasuble – the poncho-like garment worn on top of the alb and stole. Again, the chasuble is derived from the clothing of the early church – it evolved from the common outer traveling garment worn the late Roman Empire.
Back to Robin Williams – he noted that Episcopal worship is color-coded: our vestments (and altar hangings) change according to the liturgical season. Purple in Lent and blue in Advent reflect those more somber and reflective seasons. White is the color of celebration and rejoicing: we use it at Easter, for feast days, and for funerals. Red is for the Holy Spirit: we wear it at Pentecost and at ordinations. Green is for “ordinary time”.
The Eucharistic has two parts – the Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, or of the Table.
The Liturgy of the Word – everything that happens before the offertory - is based on the Jewish service of listening to the words of scripture, hearing reflection on the meaning of the lessons, and offering praise and intercessions to God in prayer.
An element of the service that many visitors, seekers, and even faithful Christians find challenging, and which we are asked about rather frequently, is the Creed that we say together following the sermon. It’s a truly ancient statement of belief that comes from a particular moment in the life of the evolving church.
In the fourth century the Christian Movement had grown exponentially and there was significant variation in the religious ideas being taught in different regions and among different congregations: in effect, my gospel could be your heresy, and vise-versa. There was deep and growing division over what constituted authentic Christian belief and practice. The Bishops of the Church “took counsel together” in a series of meetings aimed identifying and agreeing to what elements of the faith would constitute authorized Christianity. In addition to finalizing which texts would be included in the canonical New Testament, at the Council of Nicea in 325 the bishops agreed to a statement of Christian beliefs that we repeat in our Eucharist today.
It is no wonder that this 4th century statement poses a challenge or an obstacle to many in the 21st century. Former Bishop John Spong has said that when he recites the Creed, he always finds objections, but when he sings it, he believes it with his whole heart. What is remarkable about the Creed is its historic and geographic universality: when we say (or sing) it, we are affirming our shared experience with Christians across centuries and across the world who are awed by, grateful for, and who find deep meaning in the Mysteries of God’s loving presence in human history in the persons of the Trinity and through the reality of the Church. For me, it is more important to experience and affirm this connection to the faith experience of generations than it is to focus on the literal assertions that the Creed’s language make.
After the offertory, the service continues with the Liturgy of the Table, the Eucharist. Before the priest begins the Eucharistic prayer, one of the servers will pour a little water over the priest’s hands. In the early church, offerings included farm produce and animals, so it was important , in a practical sense, to wash the priest’s hands after handling the offerings. The gesture also reminds us that we should all come to God’s altar with clean hands and pure hearts. It has long been the custom for the head of the Jewish household to wash his or her hands in a similar way before the prayers at the Passover meal. Jesus probably did this at the Last Supper.
The words and actions during the Eucharist follow a four-fold pattern first used by Jesus when he fed the multitudes with bread and fish, and then again at the Last Supper. First he took the bread. Then he gave thanks over the bread. He broke the bread, and finally he gave it to the people. As we involve ourselves in the drama of communion, together we remember what happened in such a vivid way that this memory is brought right back into the present moment.
During the eucharistic prayer, the bread and wine are consecrated--meaning they are made hly. Over the centuries, particularly during the Protestant Reformation, there has been a lot of debate about what happens at the moment of consecration. While there are some Episcopalians that feel the Eucharist is the literal body and blood of Christ, and others who think it is simply a memorial meal, the vast majority believe in the idea of real presence. This is the idea that Christ’s body and blood become really present and are really given and received in the elements of bread and wine. We are united in communion with Christ through receiving the bread and/or wine. We do not know how Christ is present in the bread and wine, rather, we know that it is a mystery, and that somehow God is present in the bread and wine, and when we receive that bread and wine, we are spiritually fed.
Over the years there have also been differing points of view about when consecration of the elements takes place. It has been thought that the bread and wine become Body and Blood during the words of institution, the remembering of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. Others argued that consecration takes place when the Holy Spirit is asked to enter into and transform the bread and wine. Probably the most helpful idea is that the entire eucharistic prayer followed by the Great Amen are together the moment of consecration. It is important to remember that, although a priest or bishop alone presides, the prayer is offered on behalf of the entire congregation, and it is the assent of the whole congregation that makes the elements sacred.
At the conclusion of the Great Thanksgiving, the people of God finish the Prayer together. We say the Great Amen—that final “So say we all,” “and so it is” as the priest holds up the bread and wine. This AMEN, printed in all capital letters in The Book of Common Prayer, is where we all make this prayer our own. It is not some magic in the priest’s hands that make the bread and wine holy; it is our coming together with a resounding AMEN that makes our bread and wine, and us too, something more than before.
After everyone has received Communion, the vessels are cleansed, and any remaining consecrated Bread and Wine are either consumed or put aside as reserve sacrament. Unused wine that has been consecrated is poured into the ground outside or, in churches like ours that have such a thing, poured into a special basin in the sacristy called a “piscina,” which allows the consecrated wine to go directly to the ground.
Some of the consecrated Bread and Wine is reserved for the sick and homebound, or for emergencies. It is kept in the Aumbry, and its presence there is signified by the burning Sanctuary Lamp.
We conclude our worship with prayer of thanksgiving, and we prepare to transition to our lives as ministers of the Gospel in the world. The final word of dismissal by the Deacon, and our affirmation of “Thanks be to God, Alleluia”, remind us that the purpose of worship is not simply to encourage and renew ourselves, but for all of us to be empowered and sent forth as the Body of Christ in the world.
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