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Joe’s Sermon: “Christ’s Stigmata for Today’s Doubting Thomases”

“Christ’s Stigmata for Today’s Doubting Thomases”

Joe Coalter
The Church of the Good Shepherd
The Second Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018
Text: Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31, Psalm 133

At last count, the Roman Catholic Church has canonized 451 saints. Some, it is claimed, provide aid and comfort against certain maladies that befall we humans. They may help with blindness or birth complications. But they may also combat whooping cough, wildfires, hailstorms, worms, moles and boils, to name only a few.

Another group of patron saints protect specific groups. For instance, there are patron saints for tinkers, tailors, doctors and even bomb technicians. There are 11 patron saints for paupers, 8 for potters, 3 each for poets, pastry chefs and journalists, only two for PR specialists and priests and a measly 1 for politicians.

For those of you who are younger and still in school, you may find it interesting that there are 22 patron saints for students but only 8 for teachers. So if you start now getting in good with your lot of patron saints, your heavenly forces can potentially outnumber theirs.

However, you should be cautioned that there is only one patron saint for school principals – no doubt with powers sufficient to trump all the saints that students and teachers could muster.

My favorites patron saints are those for air travelers, for air hostesses, for air stewards, and for air crews of different nationalities – one for Belgium air crews, another for French air crews and a third for Spanish air crews.

Evidently, traveling in the air – close to heaven’s gates – is particularly hazardous in the church’s view.

This morning we heard the story of the patron saint who is helpful in combatting doubt. That saint is Thomas the Apostle.

Designating Thomas as the patron saint against doubt seems rather odd to me. After all, Thomas was only able to suspend his skepticism about the resurrection after he had the opportunity to touch the actual wounds of the resurrected Jesus.

I personally think that Thomas should be reclassified. His new classification should be the patron saint of all “moderns” – modern folk like you and I.

Some weeks back in the adult class here at Good Shepherd, we looked at the serious question of religion and science. We discussed a reading from a recent book by Ian Hutchinson entitled Monopolizing Knowledge.

As a nuclear engineer and a physicist, Hutchinson honors and reveres science. But his book challenges what Hutchinson calls “scientism.” Scientism is the belief that nothing is true unless it can be repeated in controlled, scientific experiments. Hutchinson describes the limitations of “scientism” in this way,

… consider the beauty of a sunset, the justice of a verdict, the compassion of a nurse, the drama of a play, the depth of a poem, the terror of a war, the excitement of a symphony, the love of a woman. Which of these can be reduced to the Clarity of a scientific description? Yes, a sunset can be described in terms of the spectral analysis of the light, the causes of the coloration arising from light scattering by particles and molecules, and their arrangement and gradient in the sky. But when all the scientific details of such a description are done, has that explained, or even conveyed, its beauty? Hardly. In fact it has missed the point.

One reviewer of Hutchinson’s book, described the book’s main thesis in this way:

Scientism … is akin to observing the world with a severely limited vision, with only one eye, and through a microscope (or a telescope), missing much and perhaps even most of what makes up the full spectrum of human knowledge.

We “moderns” are particularly susceptible to at least one form of such scientism. We question, if not outright distrust, anything that we cannot personally verify. In this sense, Thomas was the first “modern.” He had to actually touch the wounds of Christ before he could believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

I have often thought that you and I – who stand this side of the resurrection – are most blessed. The disciples before the resurrection were constantly puzzled as to exactly who and what this Jesus was. But we have heard the post-resurrection message of the gospels and of Paul’s letters to the early church. From these, we have learned that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, the Christ who was and is the first born from the tomb.

More recently, I have begun to wonder, though. Are we really so blessed since we face the same quandary as Thomas did so many centuries ago? Thomas had missed the appearances of Jesus after the resurrection. The other disciples could tell him about what they had seen and heard. But that was not the same as being there, was it?

We moderns were not there either. Like Thomas, we can only know what the other disciples say that they saw and heard. But that is not the same as being there, is it?

Jesus recognized the challenge faced by Thomas, the patron saint of “moderns,” and all who came after Thomas. That is why he told Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

We are blessed – according to Jesus, even more blessed than the Apostle Thomas who actually touched the risen Christ so that he might believe.

Before our egos get too puffed up with our blessedness, however, we would do well to remind ourselves that elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus cautioned: “To whom much has been given, much shall be expected.!”

Harriet and I volunteer at Virginia Voice each month. Virginia Voice provides the blind with readings from a variety of publications through radio broadcasts. We offer a program called “Religion in Print: A Monthly Comparison.” I read excerpts from a journal called Christianity Today, and Harriet reads from another magazine known as Christian Century.

The most recent issue of Christianity Today was devoted entirely to Billy Graham who, as you may know, died last February at the age of 99. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit to you that I have not always been the biggest fan of Billy Graham. But while reading from Christianity Today two weeks ago, I was struck by both the scope of Graham’s positive influence and his remarkable integrity – both financially and personally – in the way he went about his ministry as an evangelist.

One statement by Dr. Graham struck me as particularly characteristic of the man at his best. During a 2008 interview with Dr. Graham, he recalled a chance encounter that he had with a young man in India. He said, “I had a Hindu student say to me in Madras: ‘I would become a Christian if I could see one.’” Graham told his interviewers: “… when he said that to me, he was looking at me. That was,” Graham said, “one of the greatest sermons ever preached to me.”

Whatever you may think of Billy Graham, few men have preached to more powerful effect than he. And yet, Graham had the spiritual insight as well as the humility to recognize in the words of that young student from Madras, that he, Graham, was receiving a word from God that was unmatched by any sermon that Graham himself had ever preached or heard.

Jesus Christ is most certainly with us today in spirit. I believe with all my heart that he sits at the right hand of His father interceding for us and for all humankind.

But Jesus is not with us in body any longer– at least not in his former body. It is often said of us – you and me – that we, the church, are the “body of Christ.” Just as surely as Christ now sits beside His father, we are called to be his “body.” We are not called to only be a “presence” for our neighbors, though. We are blessed to be THE “body of Christ” as he stood risen from the dead, wounded but very much alive.

The wounds to be found on Christ’s hands, feet and side after his ordeal on the Cross are known as the “stigmata of Christ.” They were evidence to the apostle Thomas not only that the man Jesus was now resurrected but also that the love of God for which Jesus made His sacrifice on the cross had not been extinguished by death.

Too often the church has forgotten that the risen Christ was a wounded Christ, wounded by his loving sacrifice for us and all humanity. Too often the church has assumed that its calling is to be the “body of Christ” triumphant – the embodiment of the Risen One who at the end of time will establish the “New Jerusalem.” But it is worth remembering that before the Son of God could begin to make a new Heaven and a new Earth out of this trouble-torn world of ours, he had to be wounded unto death on a Cross.

Nothing can compare to the sacrifice Jesus Christ made on Golgotha. Any sacrifices that we might make in His name cannot approximate what Jesus endured on the Cross. But we are truly His church – “the body of Christ” in the here and now. Therefore, our incarnation of Christ should evidence wounds akin to those that Thomas felt on the body of the Risen Christ.

Where, one might ask, does one find those wounds of loving sacrifice in Christ’s body today? You and I may be blessed because we have not seen and yet come to believe. But for those to whom much has been given, much is expected. Our blessedness carries with it a calling – the calling of loving sacrifice for others in His name. Wounds from such sacrifice are to be expected. Sacrifice is painful whether it be physical, financial or emotional. But wounds well-earned from sacrifices for the love of others show forth to today’s Doubting Thomases – as no words could ever express – that the love of God found in Christ Jesus lives still.

My Friends, Doubting Thomases in our neighborhood, our nation and our world look to us today much as that young man from Madras looked at Graham. They are looking for evidence of the wounds on the body of Christ” that signal the forces of death will not – indeed, cannot – separate them from the Love of God.

Friends, the question before us today is quite simply this: Will these latter day Doubting Thomases find signs of Christ’s stigmata among us here at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church?