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The Rev. Dr. Laura Mendenhall The Rev. Dr. Laura Mendenhall

The Rev. Dr. Laura S. Mendenhall is the former president of Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

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Presbyterian Church (USA)

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Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA


Dealing with Mystery

John 20:19-31

2nd Sunday of Easter - Year B

April 19, 2009

Do you ever wonder what happened to Thomas?  Over the years many stories have been told about Thomas.  Here's another--told as I imagine it could have gone for him, years later....

Thomas knew the years had passed when his brittle bones led to a broken hip.  While recovering, his grandson stayed with him, helping him through the adjustments, supporting him as he hobbled around.  Thomas appreciated the assistance as well as the company.  After all, this was his namesake, a dear boy, though not really a boy anymore.  Thomas III, Trey, they called him, was a young adult, well on his way to becoming a businessman in his own right.  Thomas relished the opportunity to have time with his grandson even if the reason for their time together was the pain and aggravation of his broken hip.

After helping his grandfather get ready for bed, Trey brought them both a cup of hot tea and sat down next to his grandfather's bed.  He had something on his mind.  Fortunately, his grandfather seemed ready to listen.  "Tell me, Grandpa, about when you saw Jesus after he died.  Tell me about how you put your hands into his wounds.  Tell me about how you learned the truth.  Tell me about how your life was changed that day.  I feel so cheated.  I was born too late to see and touch.  You were so lucky to have been with him and seen his resurrection."

Thomas looked at his grandson, a bright, young man, eager, open, vulnerable, questioning, doubting.  Thomas saw himself in his grandson.  He was tempted to tell his grandson how that moment with the Resurrected Christ was the defining moment of his life.  But he knew that this would not help Trey.  This young man was too much like himself.  Perhaps the best thing he could do for his grandson was to help him deal with the mystery of an encounter with the Risen Christ.  Thomas found a comfortable place amongst the pillows and began.
 
"Son, I do want to tell you all about my encounter with the Risen Christ.  While it is true that my experience cannot be your experience, I do want to tell you what happened, for it was a life-changing moment...though perhaps not in the way you are imagining."

"You remember, don't you, that Peter and John were the first to the cemetery, that they found Jesus' grave clothes folded and lying in the empty tomb and so they believed?  You remember that part, right?"  Trey nodded.  "You remember that Mary also went to the cemetery, heard Jesus call her name, and she recognized him?"  Trey nodded.  "Then later when a group of the disciples were gathered together in an upper room, Jesus appeared to them and breathed the Holy Spirit upon them and commissioned them to go out and be the community whose membership is based upon forgiveness?"  Trey nodded again.  "Those who had followed Jesus all reported on their encounter with the Risen Lord with the result being that fear no longer possessed them; they believed Jesus was God's Son.  But I had not seen him.  So I told them, 'Unless I see the nail holes in his hands and put my finger in his wounds and stick my hand in the stab in his side, I cannot believe.'  I was not asking for any more than anyone else had already received.  They had seen for themselves.  I simply wanted to see for myself.  Isn't that what you want as well?" Thomas asked his grandson.

"Yes," Trey nodded.  "That is all I want--to see and touch for myself so that I can know and understand.  There are so many loose ends still dangling on this.  I would simply like to tie it all up so I could know what to expect and what to tell other people.  I don't think it's too much to ask.  I don't blame you, Grandpa, for wanting to touch the wounds yourself," confessed Trey.
 
"Yes, well, that is exactly what I was thinking at the time," Thomas acknowledged.  "But, hear the rest of the story.  As I told you, I did get to have an encounter with the Risen Lord.  I had expected that he would appear to me somewhere along the road or at my home or something like that.  I mean, the others had already seen him so I figured that he would just appear to me in some private meeting.  I was wrong.  Jesus came to me when we were all together again.  Jesus greeted all of us and then turned directly to me, offering me whatever I needed in order to experience for myself the power of the Resurrection.  But the truth is, I did not need to put my hands into his side.  I did not need to touch the wounds in his hands.  What I realized at that moment is that what is eternal is invisible.  If I could touch it, it was only temporal anyway.  If I could understand it, it may have been only human thought, shaped by my own prior knowledge, hemmed in by my own perspective.  My thoughts are not God's thoughts.  My mind is so limited in what it can comprehend.  What I did understand, when I was in the presence of the Risen Lord, was God's omniscience, God's omnipresence, God's omnipotence, and my limited nature.  What I understood in the presence of the Risen Lord is the mystery of our faith.  Some things cannot be explained or seen or touched but must simply be accepted as mystery, truth that is beyond our understanding.  Sometimes we must trust in God's mercy rather than in our ability to figure everything out.  It was a big day for your Grandpa, Son.  But you need to know I never actually touched him.  I decided I did not need to do that after all.  I believed, but it was not because of what I saw or what I touched with my own hands.  I believed because I experienced the mercy of God.  That is the mystery in which I live and will die, the mystery of God's mercy shown to me.  That is what I wish for you, my Son."

"Do you mean that from then on you have been able to trust the mystery of faith, you have never again questioned or doubted your faith in God's mercy?  I just don't think I could ever be so strong in my faith."  His grandson looked frustrated.

"Oh, of course, I have doubted--both myself and God.  I question my faith continually and need to renew my commitment to Jesus Christ on a daily basis.  It is my nature, dear one, to doubt.  Clearly, you have inherited this family trait.  But do not be overly concerned.  It was not my believing which brought Christ alive to me.  And my doubting did nothing to cripple Christ's return.  Jesus handled my doubts with mercy.  Jesus made a special effort to meet me where I was and to give me what I needed in order to believe.  Jesus continues to meet me where I am and to show mercy to me.  In this way, Jesus fulfills the baptismal promise to claim me as God's own.  I do not fully understand the how or the why of it, but I did not need anything more than an experience of Christ's mercy in order to believe."
   
"Now, I know that my telling you what I believe may have little impact on you.  I am only telling you my story because there may be something in my story which will coincide with your story.  The most important thing I can tell you is to stay with the church.  Jesus came to me when the disciples were all together.  He never came to me with such power when I was alone.  Moreover, you need to hear the stories of Christ's followers and you need them to listen to your stories.  Since we are dealing with the mystery of faith, with what can never be tied neatly into a package, we must be wary of the possibility for distortion.  We need the biblical story and the stories of one another's experiences with the Risen Lord in order to fully grasp our own experiences.  We need the experiences of the whole church.  Of course, the church will never be able to give you all the answers, but the church can help you to recognize Christ's presence in our midst.  The church can help you to live in Christ's mercy and help you to extend mercy to others.  The church is the steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor.4:1)

  • giving a word of hope in a time of distress,
  • offering forgiveness to those who hurt us,
  • sharing our resources with others even when we are unsure we will have enough for ourselves,
  • seeking unity with one another in spite of our differences,
  • proclaiming the crucified Jesus as the living Lord and God.

This is the mystery of our faith.  Thus, I tell you my story in order to nurture your faith that your joy might be full."
   
Thomas looked at the confusion in the eyes of his bright grandson.  He ached for him.  "What you need to know, Son, is that I never touched him.  I know I said that was the only way I would believe.  But when I got right down to it, that was not what I needed after all.  What I needed was simply to recognize that I was in the presence of my Lord and my God and the recipient of grace that I could not have earned."
   
Trey sat down his cup of tea and reached out and took the hand of his grandfather.  He guessed this might be as close as he was going to get to touching the mystery of his faith.  Trey looked at that gnarled old hand and tried to imagine this hand touching Jesus' wounds, this hand not needing to touch Jesus.
   
A small puddle of tears plopped onto their hands.  He heard his grandfather repeating Jesus' benediction:  Blessed are you who believe without seeing.  Blessed are you.  Thanks be to God.

Let us pray.

My Lord and my God, thank you for being present with each one of us in whatever way each one needs in order to know you and our crucified and risen Lord.  In you, we have life abundant and life eternal.  In you, life.  With you, life.  Lord, we believe.  Help our unbelief.  Give us your peace, through Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God.  Amen.

Coming soon!


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