The following service was streamed live via Zoom on April 11th at 10:30am.
The entire text for the service is printed below for home use by those who are not ready to return to public gatherings or who are otherwise not able to be at church on the day. Even though the service is streamed live, those who are unable to participate online may use this material at any time for their private devotions. If ‘two or three’ are gathered with you, you may choose a ‘leader’ in order to use the responsive prayers and readings as you would in church.
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“Faith, after all, is a divine operation wrought in the dark, even though it may seem to be embodied in intellectual arguments and historical facts.” (R.H. Benson)
CALL TO CELEBRATION
R: Christ is risen indeed!
L: On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the disciples were behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jews.
R: Jesus came and stood among them and said to them: “Peace be with you.” And he showed them his hands and his side
PRAYER OF INVOCATION
L: Empowering God, when the road ahead looms endless,
R: empower us to be companions for one another along the road.
L: Inspiring God, when the road forward is blocked,
R: inspire in us creative responses that move us beyond the barriers.
L: Enabling God, when the road before us divides,
R: enable us to feel your presence luring us on.
PRAYER OF AWARENESS
God of time and eternity, help us look to the future with hope. May we be unafraid of hopes and dreams. May we be realistic about our limitations, but never to lose hope in our potential to transcend them. Grant us courage for today and tomorrow. Amen.
JOURNEY INTO SILENCE
Meditation “Whether or not God exists” by Michael Benedikt
Whether or not God exists is entirely up to us. For God comes into being by what we do and do not do.Neither you nor I are God, but what we’re doing may be. This God, who lives as deeds not creeds, is the God we know firsthand.
This God, whose shape is action not image, is the God we witness every day.
This God’s presence is not guaranteed.
“God is good and God does good” the Talmud says, and Augustine said too, “God is what God does”
we might add – or God does what God is, which is good.
Goodness-of-deed is less God manifest than God instanced.
God is in our hands, and we in “his” as we choose the good and do it.
Do good again and again, and you “do God’s will.”
“Do God’s will,” and you bring God into being.
Let us listen to the silence of this sacred time, A time made ready for us by willing hands. May this silence invigorate our questionings. May our faith be made stronger by our coming together. May new friendships be made and old friendships renewed, bound together by care and affection.
(30 seconds silence)
CONFESSION AND ASSURANCE
L: Merciful God, please don’t let it ever seem that as far as we are concerned Christ has died and risen in vain. Please forgive and deliver us from the sin that hampers and hardens us.
We confess to you that sometimes we live guiltily, as if Christ’s forgiveness is only attainable by those who are worthy.
We confess that sometimes we see ourselves as losers in spite of Christ’s victory. We live like paupers in the midst of the riches of his grace, we busy ourselves like church slaves in this era of Easter liberty.
L: Please help us to ‘get it together’ both as individuals and as a community. Forgive us our sins and fill us with the breath of your Spirit. Deliver us from negative thoughts that can cripple us, from fashionable ideas that can mislead us, from wounded memories that can infect us, and from a pre-Easter faith that can entomb us. Restore to us the joy of Easter and lead us in the way everlasting. Amen.
THE WORD OF ASSURANCE
L: Our Lord Jesus said: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” He then breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Out of the abundant grace of the living Christ I proclaim to you the door to life has been opened to us.
R:Thanks be to God.
FROM THE EARLY CHURCH – Acts of the Apostles 4: 32-35
32-33 The whole congregation of believers was united as one—one heart, one mind! They didn’t even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, “That’s mine; you can’t have it.” They shared everything. The apostles gave powerful witness to the resurrection of the Master Jesus, and grace was on all of them.
34-35 And so it turned out that not a person among them was needy. Those who owned fields or houses sold them and brought the price of the sale to the apostles and made an offering of it. The apostles then distributed it according to each person’s need.
FROM OUR CONTEMPORARY WORLD – “Two Doubters”
He was nearby nursing his grief in solitude with tearing fierce regrets; while I was far away among a people of many gods who hedge their bets.
He, a week later, was there when the Peace returned on another Lord’s Day, lovingly scattering doubts nike the chaff which the wind drives far away.
Millennia later, like one born out of season, I stood with the sceptical majority when that ineffable Peace humbly came and entered my poverty.
FROM THE GOSPELS – John 20:19-31
19-20 Later on that day, the disciples had gathered together, but, fearful of the Jews, had locked all the doors in the house. Jesus entered, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.” Then he showed them his hands and side.
20-21 The disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were awestruck. Jesus repeated his greeting: “Peace to you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you.”
22-23 Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he said. “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”
24-25 But Thomas, sometimes called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We saw the Master.”
But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.”
26 Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.”
27 Then he focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.”
29 Jesus said, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”
30-31 Jesus provided far more God-revealing signs than are written down in this book. These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it.
A CONTEMPORARY WITNESS “I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It”
I have been here for the previous two first Sundays after Easter, preaching on this same gospel lesson. How can this be, you ask? The lectionary readings go in a three -year cycle. True for most Sundays, but this same story in John is traditionally read every year. I wonder if, perhaps, it is because this particular story is so critical to the believer.
Maybe it is important because the story of Thomas has given rise to some misunderstandings and wrong assumptions about the heart of the Christian faith, beginning with a decidedly negative connotation to the word “doubt.” We assume doubt to be bad or even the opposite of faith. Some tend to think of Thomas as something less than a faithful disciple of Jesus. But I am here to tell you that if you have no doubts, you are faith-less person.
Many, such as the great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich, view doubt not as the opposite of faith, but as a necessary element of faith itself. For example, I have faith that my friend is my friend. I cannot prove this friendship. And when I experience friendship I have no need to prove it. But were I to try and prove it through some sort of testing, the friendship would go bad and become no friendship at all. So it is with God in Christ.
So we have the disciples, minus Thomas the Twin, who have an experience of the Risen Lord. We should note, however, that they do not say they believe Jesus has risen. They do not say they have faith in the risen Lord. They only say, “We have seen the Lord.” They have experienced Jesus presence again after the crucifixion.
Thomas wanted to have a similar experience. We could say whatever doubt Thomas may have harboured moved him to want to share in their experience. And in all honesty, we are here because we want to share in their experience as well.
All of us are like Thomas. In effect, Thomas said, “Seeing is believing. Since I missed Easter – since I did not see – how can I believe?” Thomas is you, he is me. And really, Thomas is not so different than anyone else in the story? Mary Magdalene saw the empty tomb, but she did not believe until the risen Christ appeared and spoke to her. She told the disciples what she had seen, but they believed only when Jesus came and stood among them.
Now, to be sure, there are those among you, like Mary Magdalene and the other disciples, who have been there. You have seen the Christ. You imbibed faith while sitting on your mother’s knee. When you hear the word, “faith,” you don’t think of doctrines or other religious beliefs, you think of kindly old Mrs. Smith, the one who taught you in Sunday School in the 4th grade, who told you those Bible stories in a way so real, so sensitive, that you believed, and knew. Or you think of Rev. Jones who took the youth group camping each summer. There, by the campfire, as Rev. Jones broke the Communion bread, you knew you were a Christian. You were there early.
But Thomas was not there. I was not there. You, with the exception of those I just mentioned, were not there. Belief was not something that came naturally to Thomas, nor to us. Thomas wants nothing more than to see for himself. He wants a real experience of his own; a deeper understanding he can claim for himself. And who of us doesn’t?
Thomas’ position is certainly not uncommon, nor is his doubt. As I pointed out earlier, he wasn’t much different from the rest of the disciples, who dismissed the stories of the resurrection as idle tales. Where he did differ was in the character of his disbelief. At least he was prepared to believe under certain conditions. “Show me the print of the nails.” Like any good scientist, he wanted facts. I think that we have to acknowledge that his demand for proof was very reasonable.
It is more than reasonable, though. His doubt is essential! Tony de Mello, a Jesuit priest I often quote, tells a story about the Master who quoted Aristotle: “In the quest of Truth it would seem better and indeed necessary to give up what is dearest to us.” Then the Master substituted the word, ”God” for “Truth” in Aristotle’s statement: “In the quest of God it would seem better and indeed necessary to give up what is dearest to us.”
Later a disciple said to him, “I am ready, in the quest for God, to give up anything: wealth, friends, family, country, life itself. What else can a person give up?” The Master calmly replied, “One’s beliefs about God.” We have right here in John’s story about Thomas a model for a growing faith. Thomas’ questioning and doubt does two very important things.
First, it prevents him from being hoodwinked by blind faith. Unfortunately, we often feel that our faith is inadequate if we can’t quite believe all that Christian doctrine puts before us. Usually the ones who foster this inadequacy – the ones who have tried to convince us that doubt is bad – are the ones who will gain power over us by having us believe, without question, what they tell us, or else they are the ones with shaky faith, and they are afraid that, if you don’t believe what they believe, their own faith will crumble.
It not just the people behind events such as the infamous Jonesville massacre or the disaster a few years back in Waco, Texas you have to worry about. You find them all over: the school teacher who is too insecure to allow students to think for themselves, the clergyperson who wants to be the boss and will brook no questioning, the politician who would be voted out of office if people knew the facts, big business and their advertising firms who would just like us to believe the glossy claims made for their products. And the Church, over the centuries, has been as guilty as any of trying to keep people in the dark in order to strengthen its position. Thomas, and those like him who demand some facts, at least have a chance of avoiding servitude to those who would keep us in the dark and ‘pull our strings’ with their ideas.
Second, our doubting makes possible new learning. Facts that we observe and experience form the basis of human learning. It is the primary process by which one can know anything. Our belief becomes vital when it is first-hand experience: what we have seen, heard and touched for ourselves. Until we have asked a question we are not really open to an answer, an experience. Until we are ready to doubt our old beliefs, there is no room for any new ones.
In my experience, there are many in the church today who are halfway believing, halfway saying with Thomas, “This I cannot believe.” The ones who dare to go the rest of the way and express their doubt are, far from being inadequate in their faith, the ones who are on the road to real faith. To seek, to question, to doubt is the first step, and an essential step, toward faith.
The point of John’s story is that God does not deny Thomas here. Jesus appears again and offers Thomas just what he has asked for: ‘You need proof? Okay, go ahead and touch me. Put your fingers in my wounds.’ Far from despising Thomas’ expression of doubt, Jesus responds to it. Such is God’s way of handling doubt: God gives us what we need. “Seek and you shall find,” says the scripture.
But note that the story doesn’t stop here. No less a scientific mind than that of Pascal declared, “Faith declares what the senses do not see, but not contrary to what they see. It is above them, not contrary to them.” Thomas is given a bigger faith than just that which is gained from seeing. Thomas’ response, “My Lord and my God!” is one of the strongest declarations of faith recorded in all the New Testament. The first part, “My Lord,” comes from what he saw: the proof for which he had asked, but the second part, “my God,” is not seen in the evidence. Thomas uses the proof provided to him to see Jesus, but then makes a leap of faith to see in Jesus, the face of God. Thomas may have started slowly with his doubts, but through the surge of the Spirit, he leapt ahead of all the rest and reached the Truth.
Jesus then says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” It is that gift of faith by which we are blessed; that faith that allows us to go beyond the visible, tangible reality of our senses and touch the reality beyond.
Reality is, I hope, more than any of us will ever understand. Each flower holds within it the reality of the entire universe and the reality of God. Our faiths calls us to question and doubt so that we can be open to the facts which will give new understanding , but then it enables us to see beyond the experience of the obvious to see the presence of God in all things. Thomas saw this, going beyond the visible proof to be blessed by the invisible.
Where does that leave us? We have heard the stories that invite to say, “Yes,” to God. We have heard someone call our name. There have been sermons, scripture passages, prayers. We have heard and maybe half-believed. If something else is needed that’s okay, says John, because God will provide it. (Come to the Lord’s Table, open your hands, open your mind, open your heart, and you will receive what you need.)
I don’t know what you need. Maybe I don’t even know what I need. Maybe what you need is for Jesus to slip through that closed door behind which you hide and say, “Peace.” (Maybe what you need is for him to say, “You need physical, tangible, visible, tactile, material, empirical proof? Here, taste this bread, drink this cup, my body, my blood.”)
But don’t worry that you weren’t there on Easter. Don’t worry that you have a hard time believing some of the ideas that are associated with Christianity. As far as faith is concerned, you haven’t missed all that much, for whatever it was that danced forth from the tomb and turned around the lives of a bunch of frightened disciples, will respond to a questioning, demanding doubt, and take it beyond answers to faith and truth.
Let us pray: Most holy God, patient Friend of doubters, our eyes have not seen nor our hands touched the risen Christ. Keep fresh and alert in us your gift of faith, which though not seeing, glories in following the living Lord wherever he leads. By this faith, enable us to love others not measuring the cost, nor expecting any pay-back except that of knowing we are participants in an Easter drama which has no end. Amen.
A CELEBRATION OF FAITH
L: God is hearing what we hear; God is seeing what we see,
L: God is crying when we cry; God is laughing when we laugh.
R: We are known in community with believers, in ministry with the marginalised.
L: Encouragement and support are the gifts we exchange.
R: in our places of rest, work and play, in our speaking of dreams and visions.
L: in our physical, emotional and spiritual relating –
R: being loved, empowers all women and men, to, in turn, minister in love.
PRAYERS FOR OTHERS
God of Easter, our sure saviour and faithful friend, wherever the irrepressible grace of Christ Jesus is known, may it be freely shared. We pray for teeming millions around the world, and for your servant the church, at work in every land.
We pray for the witness of the church in whatever community it is set. Keep it loyal through times of harassment and suffering, and what is more difficult, keep it faithful in times of prosperity and comfort.
We pray for the church wherever it is in dialogue with other religions. Keep it humble, yet absolutely true to its own gospel, and what is more difficult, keep it open to anything you want to say to us through other faiths.
We pray for our nation with its many strengths and considerable flaws. Bless those political and community leaders whom we respect and cherish, and what is more difficult for us to ask, we pray for your blessing on those who disappoint, frustrate and anger us.
We pray for other nations and their leaders, especially those that are struggling against heavy odds to maintain the well being of their citizens. and what is more difficult, we pray for any nations that despise or would spitefully abuse us.
We pray for friends and family who love us well and whom we love dearly, in happiness or in grief, in success or failure, in sickness or in health; and what is more difficult, we pray for those prickly souls among relatives or neighbours whom we find it hard to like.
We pray for the hardworking immigrants who have brought skills and wealth to our nation, and whose diverse cultures have so enriched us; and what is more difficult we pray for those refugees who come uninvited to our shores with nothing but their pitiful need.
We pray, Saviour and Friend, for each other gathered here today. We especially pray for those who are suffering physical or emotional ills with scant complaint; and what is more difficult, we pray for any who seem to advertise even minor aches and pains with repetitious stories.
God of the Easter Christ, please endow us with more of his kind of love, that we may give of our best without looking for personal profit, and go on our way rejoicing even when we are misunderstood or rebuffed. For yours is the kingdom of love, the power of love, and the glory of love, now and for ever, so we pray as you taught us: Our Father…
THE LORD’S PRAYER
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name; your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us in the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever. Amen.
R: To live in the present moment is a miracle.
L: The miracle is not to walk on water.
R: The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment,
L: To appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.
R: Peace is all around, in the world and in nature
L: And within you – in your bodies and your spirits.
R: Once I learn to touch this peace, I will be healed and transformed.
L: It is not a matter of faith,
R: It is a matter of practice.