The audio for this sermon can be found here.
27 The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” Acts 5:27-32
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” – John 20:24-29
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Austin, TX, where Whitney and I are from, or if you’ve been there. But they have this saying: “Keep Austin Weird.” There’s a kind of pride in that saying, that you can notice if you spend any time there. It’s definitely something that is part of the city’s reputation, at least certain parts of it, and something that the people who have lived there a long time sort of see as making it special and unique. It stands out from other cities in Texas, culturally, politically, and just in terms of geography and aesthetics. It has a different look and feel to it.
But then sometimes, this pride about being different, being weird, can also be taken a little far. It can get silly, and sometimes people just try to be weird for the sake of being weird – not really for any other reason: people dressing is bizarre ways and doing things in public mostly for the purpose of being noticed.
But it’s hard to see the point sometimes of weirdness like that, other than maybe just because it’s based in a fear of conformity. Or an insecurity about not being special. Which is understandable. Really it is — it’s a deeply human thing to want. To stand out from the crowd. And I think that’s what the phrase keep Austin Weird is really getting at, at its best, “Don’t let this city become like all the other cities. There’s something special, there’s something different here, that makes this place what it is — don’t lose that.”
There’s this pastor I know in Austin though who has a blog called, not “Keep Austin Weird,” but “Keep Jesus Weird.” And I have to admit, I sometimes find myself wishing I’d come up with that title first. It’s pretty clever, and I think it says something important actually for us. In this case, in the case of Jesus, there can also be something very good and maybe even essential about being weird, and keeping Jesus weird.
And this is one of the things the church in America still has to learn, it seems to me: that being a Christian is not normal. And it never was supposed to be normal. But this is hard for us. Many of us grew up in a time and cultural setting when we maybe did think that being Christian was normal. Maybe in some ways we still think that way. But it’s not normal. And it was never intended to be normal. I should be disruptive of what is normal! And in fact, it’s precisely when the church gets to a place where being Christian can be seen as normal, that I think a problem arises. This is especially true when it comes to belief in something as revolutionary as the resurrection of Jesus.
Because there really is nothing normal about believing that a homeless Jewish rabbi from 1st Palestine not only rose from the dead but was the incarnation of the God of the universe. A universe in which this planet is only a speck of dust on the cosmic map — that hasn’t even been around that long compared to the rest of the universe, and human beings haven’t been alive on the planet compared to many other animals planet! It’s not normal to believe this. In fact, it’s weird. It’s kind of crazy. And the more we acknowledge that, and try to comfortable with it, the better off we’re going to be, I’d say. Our beliefs are Christians are quite strange, if you don’t already believe them. The trouble is many of us grew up believing them. At least at a safe distance.
Are there are indeed many people in the world, 2 billion or so, apparently, which is hard to imagine, who at least, statistically, have some kind of affiliation, however remotely, with the Christian church. But many of them — like some of us too, maybe, some of the time — many of them want to tame that faith. Neutralize it. Adjust it so that it fits, so that it’s comfortable and meshes well with our culture and way of life. And I’m not even talking about a bad way of life, necessarily. We just want to make it normal. Because weirdness is uncomfortable!
But I think we know that this tends to remove the essential ingredients from what Jesus was all about. And the disciple Thomas, I think, might be able to help us remember to keep Jesus weird. And to keep church and Christianity weird! Because Thomas it seems that Thomas maybe actually did appreciate just how much the resurrection would change things, if it was indeed true. So he says, I gotta see this for myself! Because of this is true, it’s a game-changer.
The tradition has somewhat unfairly named Thomas “doubting Thomas” though, as if we wouldn’t have doubted if we were him! I’m going to defend him a little bit here, I admit — because I’m pretty sure I would have done the same! And the other disciples had already gotten to see Jesus anyway. Thomas just wanted to see him too!
And I can definitely relate to the desire to make belief in Jesus something I can just “see for myself.” To make it normal and less weird. There was a time in my life when I really thought I could basically just reason with pretty much anyone about Christianity and convince them that it was perfectly rational and normal to believe in Jesus. You know, that it wasn’t weird.
A couple of my closest friends in high school growing up and still to this day are not Christians — so we’ve all had many conversations over the years about what makes our faith’s different from each other. And I remember several instances with one of my friends in particular when I basically tried to pin him down, back him into a corner — not literally, but figuratively — and get him to admit that he had rejected Jesus and I would demand that he explain why. I thought I could convince him of the normality and rationality of believing in Christ! I thought I could prove it to him. It wasn’t until much later that I saw the immaturity, naiveté and even arrogance of that attitude.
I still had a lot to learn, and one of the things I needed to learn was that we don’t come to faith through rationalization. Faith is weirder than that! We simply cannot force another to believe. Indeed, I can’t even force myself to believe. Let’s alone someone else. It has to be given. It’s a gift, really.
Now, I have to be open to it. Have ears to hear, eyes to see, as Jesus sometimes talks about. And it may be that part of that sometimes means, because of questions that come up when things aren’t making sense, having to do some learning and figure out if something is inconsistent. So I do think it is necessary in faith to try to rule out irrationalities. But ruling out contradictions is not what brings us to faith. It simply makes way, makes room for faith. Faith is still going to require a leap.
So even though Thomas was doubting, I don’t think he was really a skeptic. There’s a difference. A true skeptic would still doubt even after seeing Jesus. And in fact some do. The Bible talks about this. How some believed, but some still doubted — even after they saw Jesus! (Matt. 28) In contrast, Thomas wanted to believe! He was hungry. He had already been with Jesus and been groomed for discipleship. He had seen and tasted the goodness and beauty of God in Jesus’s life! He just had to be sure, because he knew it would change everything! But then he gives this powerful statement, My Lord My God!
But even when he overcomes his doubt, and after seeing Jesus’s wounded body, it’s not like this meant it was all of the sudden easy for Thomas or any of the other disciples to follow Jesus, totally trust him, and live out their faith! No, that was still difficult, even for them.
And it certainly didn’t become normal or easy to believe in Jesus even after the resurrection. It wasn’t for another 300 years or so, when Constantine came around (he’s usually the person that we blame for this), that Christianity achieved a culturally prominent status. And maybe not so coincidentally, that’s also when being Christian started to no longer require looking very much like Jesus.
And again, in fact, what we see throughout church history is that, when Christianity is normal, it tends not to look very much like Jesus. It looks more like Caesar — like power, like wealth, like success and comfort.
And I think this points to something else that’s essential about what Thomas the disciple wanted to see before he could believe… not just Jesus, but his wounds. This might be an essential detail in the story.
The wounds tell a story, don’t they. Maybe Thomas knew that the wounds were crucial. And that’s why he wanted to see them.
If Jesus had come back and not had the wounds, it might have been easier to forget about or dismiss the fact that, in order for the resurrection to mean something, he had to face the sin of humanity in all of its hate and violence and destruction, and ultimately the death and separation that it brings from God. The wounds are a reminder of the reality of this story and tell us to remember to count the cost of it. It’s a reminder that dying comes before rising.
The past two days I went on a retreat with some guys — some in the church, and some not, and we were just learning more together about what it means to be a disciple-making disciple. And there was a question that came up. I thought it was great. One of the guys in the group asked: Y’all make this sound pretty terrible. Why wouldn’t anybody want to do it, this whole discipleship thing?
This was a really good question! We’re talking about Jesus’s wounds, and dying and suffering before there can be a resurrection? Who would sign up for this? No wonder nobody wants to keep it weird! We prefer a normal Jesus, and understandably so!
Remember what Jesus says though when he appears to the appears to the disciples: John 20:26 Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” (acknowledge that Jesus goes through a wall)
Jesus gives them this peace. This trust. This assurance. He had been abandoned and unjustly condemned and tortured and killed. And he comes back from the dead, not with vengeance, but with peace. That’s going to leave an impression on you, if you witness that. It does give you peace, and it takes away your fear.
So the apostles are then able to testify with confidence and without hesitation, and even though there were all kinds of risks and dangers as a result of that.
And in the passage in Acts, they don’t try to argue their way out of being in trouble. It’s a lot like Jesus really, when he was arrested. They just testify! They tell about their experience of coming to know the good news of repentance and the forgiveness of sin — with their life on the line!
29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! . . . 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
That’s maybe the only argument that ever mattered or the only convincing that’s ever needed. I believe he was Lord and Savior because I’ve come to know and trust and see the transformative power of his message, and of a relationship with him for myself, and in the lives of others.
And that’s how it manages to get passed on, even to those of us who haven’t seen! This is what’s so amazing. And the way that happened, was through someone showing us and teaching us about the love of God with their life, and by inviting us into a relationship with Jesus.
You know that’s the true sign of a lasting movement: when it makes it through the third generation. Not just the second. That is, when it has grandchildren. People who believe without seeing it the way Thomas did.
The same thing has to happen in churches actually. And the spirit behind the third generation of something is always a special kind of phenomenon because it does not in-person contact with the founding moment. And in the case of Christianity, this spirit of course is God’s Holy Spirit which continues to make present to us Christ’s Spirit even though he’s no longer physically with us. It keeps the weirdness going!
And so I think for us at Saint Peter’s, the challenge is to recognize that the faith we hold onto is intended to be passed on, with the weirdness preserved! And the way it’s passed on is by pointing people to the beauty, and the goodness of the source, which we don’t need to prove. We just have to testify. We just have to show it: how has it changed your life? Why is life following Jesus better than life by yourself? I think we can do that. I think we believe without doubt, that it’s better. Life with faith in the resurrection is better. It’s actually truer. Not because it’s normal. But because it’s weird in the best possible way. And we want share that with others.