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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 04/07/2013

There’s a novel by John Irving titled A Prayer for Owen Meany; I don’t know if any of you have read it but I’ve read a few John Irving novels and of the ones I’ve read it’s my favorite.  The two main characters are John, who narrates things, and his friend Owen Meany; the book is about their life as they grow up together in New Hampshire.  John and Owen Meany have lots of conversations about lots of things including matters of religion and faith.  In one scene they are sitting in the schoolyard of the local Catholic school in the evening as twilight turns to darkness.  In the schoolyard there’s a gray granite statue of Mary Magdalene.  As it gets darker, the statue gets harder and harder to see until finally they can’t see it all.

Owen then asks John if he knows the statue is still there.  “Of course I know it’s there,” he says.  But Owen keeps pushing:

“You have no doubt she’s there?” Owen nagged at me.  “Of course I have no doubt!” I said.  “But you can’t see her—you could be wrong,” he said.  “No, I’m not wrong—she’s there, I know she’s there!” I yelled at him.  “You absolutely know she’s there—even though you can’t see her?” he asked me.  “Yes,” I screamed.  “Well, now you know how I feel about God,” said Owen Meany.  “I can’t see him—but I absolutely know he is there!”

I hadn’t thought about Owen Meany for a long time but that exchange between him and John is certainly a good one for Doubting Thomas Sunday.  I would guess that many of you can relate to what Owen says about God: “I can’t see him, but I absolutely know he is there.”  Owen’s faith, and maybe yours, is exactly the kind of faith that is celebrated at the end of today’s gospel: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

The standard fare for this Sunday is to defend Thomas for his insistence on seeing the Risen Christ for himself; after all pretty much everyone else in this account and the other resurrection accounts has that advantage over Thomas.  Like Thomas, with all of them, until they do see for themselves, their first reaction is not Alleluia!  He is Risen!  It’s either skepticism or it’s an effort to come up with a more logical explanation.  So who can blame Thomas for wanting to see for himself?  Why should he forever be labeled “Doubting Thomas” even though his reaction was pretty much the same as everybody else’s?

The bottom line however, is that nothing that I or anyone else is going to say today in the way of defense, nothing is going to remove the label “doubting” from in front of Thomas; that’s who he is and that’s how he’ll be remembered and it doesn’t matter that we all can relate to him, that we all can sympathize with him, it doesn’t matter that he finally comes to a profound confession of faith in Jesus as “My Lord and my God.”  We can talk about all that but he’s still going to be Doubting Thomas so it’s best to move on. 

In moving on though, I did come across a reason other than his doubt that we might be critical of Thomas; there is something he can be faulted for.  Throughout all of the gospels, one of the major tasks of Jesus is to build a community around him, a community that starts with him but then grows out of and depends on the love and trust of those who are part of it.  Jesus does this in all the gospels, but it may get even greater emphasis in John what with his Maundy Thursday focus on the new commandment to love one another as I have loved you; that’s all about the community.  This community building wasn’t all that Jesus did, but it was a big part of it.

From that perspective, while Thomas’ doubt can be defended in some respects, it can also be seen as a rejection of the community that Jesus had tried to build.  Despite how much time he had spent with the others, when it came right down to it, Thomas didn’t trust their testimony and with that, the community was threatened.  The word of the others that they had seen the Lord wasn’t good enough for Thomas and that’s a problem.  The problem is with Thomas but what he does is to make a problem about him, his lack of trust, into a problem about everybody else, and that kind of shift is never very helpful.

That brings me back to the friendship between Owen Meany and John.  In the story John didn’t trust his own faith but he did trust Owen and his faith.  He found comfort in Owen’s faith.  I don’t know if John Irving intended it or not, probably not, but what he describes in this relationship between John and Owen is a pretty good example of one of the things a church community does.  We depend on the faith of each other, we draw from the faith of each other, we live through the faith of each other because all of us have those times when, for whatever reason, we can’t do it on our own. 

We all have our Thomas moments, which I think is why this story shows up every year; the people who put together the lectionary knew that everyone could relate to it.  None of us is a perfect model of unwavering, confident faith; we all have our moments.   At our best, when we have those moments, we turn to the community to get us through rather than to turn away from it like Thomas did.  We come to church even when we don’t feel like it because we know we need the faith of the community. 

I’m sure we all have our own examples of people whose faith inspires us; maybe it’s here, maybe it’s in other churches we have been part of; and it’s probably not because of any verbal testimony; most likely it’s just a quiet presence week after week, a quiet presence that touches us and keeps us going.  Jesus worked hard to create such a community.  Because of that, Thomas’ lack of faith in the community he was part of was a bigger problem than his desire to see Jesus for himself.

In another book I read more recently titled Jesus of Nazareth: What he wanted; Who he was, German theologian Gerhard Lohfink talks about the kind of community Jesus established.  He makes what I think is an interesting point, obvious in some ways, the point that not everyone is called to follow Jesus in the same way.  For example, in the community that he formed there were the twelve disciples but in addition to that there were others who closely followed him, including women.  The others were not part of the twelve but were still part of the inner community around Jesus. 

Our assumption can be that Jesus wants everyone who encounters him to follow like that and be this “inner community” kind of disciple but the gospel evidence suggests that he doesn’t expect or even want the same kind of following from everyone.  There were some who opened themselves to the gospel and took Jesus’ call to repentance seriously but stayed where they were, continuing to do what they did.  There were some who wanted to follow and stay with Jesus, but he suggested otherwise. 

Another group would be people like the sisters Mary and Martha and brother Lazarus who were more like resident members of the Jesus movement.  There’s no evidence that they followed Jesus as he moved around but they provided a place for him to stay and Jesus’ love for them is well attested.  Along with them were other people, some named, some not, who appear briefly and then fade into the background again.  They existed more on the fringe, but they were still part of the community, people who were for Jesus rather than against him, which is important. 

That central group of the twelve and others who followed Jesus from place to place was crucial.  They were disciples who embodied a new community existing within the old, they were an example, a model; but the participation of those who didn’t become part of the central community was also important to the overall movement. Also important is the fact that in this community Jesus didn’t regard anyone as second class.

What you can perhaps see though, is that within the church as it exists today there are similar groups.  It may be that the present church is more like the community around Jesus than we realize.  I was thinking about this relative to Holy Week and Easter.  I can tell you that for every pastor it’s disappointing that so few people attend worship on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week.  Those services are central to our faith story but no matter how they’re promoted a relatively small number of people show up.  But maybe those who do attend these services are something like that inner group around Jesus, those who do follow closely and perhaps serve as important models of faith for others.  It’s a group that has an important role to play.  Their role was and continues to be crucial to the community.

We’re then grateful for and welcome those whose call to follow is different; we’re grateful when they are here, like on Palm Sunday and Easter.  We’re grateful for the support they provide and the work they do, for the good words they share about their church.  Rather than snidely looking at them as second class, we might see ourselves worshiping for them, in their place, thankful for the role they do play, thankful that they are part of the community.

We’re programmed to think that Jesus wanted that inner group to be as large as possible, that he would want everybody at every service, but maybe that’s not true; it’s something to think about.  Jesus wanted everyone to follow, but even with him, how they followed varied quite a bit.  We’re thankful however, for all those who follow, however they do it.  We’re  especially thankful for the Owen Meanys and others who have not seen and yet have come to believe, those who quietly witness to their faith with their presence.  We need them because at some point we all do have our Thomas moments.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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