The sermon refers to Thomas who wanted to see that he may believe
24Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
26Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Returning to our faith traditions
Over the last year or so, as the pandemic has eased, restrictions have been lifted, and a certain normalcy has returned to society, both of our congregations have rejoined some important traditions of our faith communities. For example, here at ESUMC, we have resumed Sunday School for our children, and Vacation Bible School during the summer holiday. Our music ministry has finally returned in full voice, with our choirs leading us in Sunday worship, singing and dancing and drumming in praise of God. Last autumn, after a gap of three years, we again celebrated our congregational hike and barbecue out in Grünbach, as well as our most joyful event of the year, our Harvest Festival, with prayers and hymns and music and food from around the world.
There are also ways in which our two congregations are reengaging in Christian ministry together, such as our Second Day of Christmas worship service, and our recent Fashingsfest party. And we have re-energized our shared commitment to the Wärmestube; after two winters of offering only takeaway food to our guests, this past season members of our two churches served side by side to provide hot food and warm fellowship and Christian hospitality to others in need.
As today we give thanks for all the ways we have reengaged in Christian ministry, one special event that had been celebrated together, and is now the last to be resumed, is what we are doing today: our annual joint worship service. Now, I'm not going to say that this service is more or less important than our Harvest Festival, or the annual Fünfhaus Erntedankfest, or any other worship or fellowship event. All of these services and gatherings are important and have meaning. But there is something special about what we are doing here today: two congregations, each with its own language and tradition and style of worship, setting aside these differences, coming together, and embracing what we hold in common.
We are the body of Christ!
And what we hold in common is significant. At the core of our shared identity is our faith in the risen Christ. As followers of Jesus, together we are the one body of Christ. Each of us here today—regardless of the language we speak, or the place in the world we have come from, or the shade of our skin, or any other distinction that might separate us—we follow Jesus, we acknowledge the resurrection proclaimed anew last Sunday, we accept the sacrifice of Jesus for us. This is the most important bond that binds us together. We are, together, members of the one body of Christ.
“Wir feiern die Liebe Gottes. Dadurch machen wir Mut.”
And more, together we are members of the United Methodist Church, a global community of faith that we represent and incarnate here in Austria. As United Methodists, we have a shared vision of how we are to respond to the gift of resurrection offered to us by God. In just a few weeks, representatives of our two congregations will gather with other Methodists from across Austria for our Annual Conference, where we will envision and prepare to carry out what we believe is our shared Christian mission. Perhaps you have heard it already: the theme of this year’s Annual Conference is, “Wir feiern die Liebe Gottes. Dadurch machen wir Mut. — We celebrate the love of God. Therefore, we encourage one another.” God loves us so much that God gave Jesus the Son to die for us; as we profess our faith in Jesus, we receive salvation. In thanksgiving to God, we are to celebrate this great gift of love, to remind one another of how much God loves us, to share this love with others in our lives.
This is our joint mission, as the two congregations that worship here each Sunday at Sechshauser Strasse. Again, we gather at different times, in different languages, according to different styles. But we offer to everyone who comes through the doors of our shared space, and to everyone in the community around us, the love of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Doubting” Thomas and the desire for faith
Today’s gospel lesson is a familiar one, about the faith journey of a disciple who, in English, we often call “Doubting” Thomas. I would suspect that for many of us, our first response in hearing this story is to judge or look down upon Thomas. This disciple has been a faithful follower of Jesus: he has seen his miracles, heard his words of wisdom, witnessed his healing of others. It is true that Thomas wasn't there with the other disciples when the risen Jesus appeared to them. Still, why doesn't Thomas believe? Why is he lacking in faith?
And at the same time, we may also feel a certain pity for Thomas, perhaps even sympathy with him. For we know what it is like to doubt, to be skeptical of the power of God’s love, to wonder if Jesus does really walk with us along our journey of faith. Have we not at times also wanted more proof, a sign, some act of God that would restore our wavering faith?
The grace of God and the gift of faith
What we encounter as we read this story, and what Thomas receives, is grace. However we may feel about Thomas, Jesus neither judges nor pities his disciple. Rather, Jesus shows mercy. Jesus recognizes that Thomas wants to believe, and so he gives them the opportunity to believe. “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side.” In spite of Thomas’ doubts, Jesus brings his disciple to belief.
Perhaps it's only natural that as we reflect upon this story, as we marvel at Jesus’ compassion and rejoice at Thomas’ restoration of faith, we overlook the role of the other disciples. Yes, these others have the advantage of seeing Jesus alive; their faith is based on what they have seen, and is emboldened by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps in comparison to Thomas, they have it easy.
However, instead of keeping that good news to themselves, taking comfort in their own salvation and ignoring their friend who was not with them that day, the disciples share this good news with Thomas. Like Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, the disciples declare to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.” Even in the midst of their lingering fear, as they remain hidden behind closed doors, the disciples are committed to sharing the good news with others.
Our calling to share our faith, to encourage others
This parable reveals to us the grace and mercy of God. In spite of our doubts, Jesus offers himself to us, blesses us, so that we would believe. But we also see that like the first followers of Jesus, we also have a role to play in sharing the good news of Jesus with others. For, like Mary Magdalene at the tomb, like these disciples, we have seen the Lord. We have been blessed. We have been forgiven of our sins. We have been shown love. Because we believe in Jesus, we have been granted salvation and life everlasting. This is good news that we are to share with others who have yet to embrace the love and forgiveness of God.
And, we should be mindful that there may be others among us, right here in this body of Christ, who, like Thomas, have doubts. In a few minutes, when we gather for Holy Communion, as we form a circle around the altar, we may find ourselves standing next to or across from a fellow Christian who is doubting, wondering, seeking assurance of God’s love and forgiveness. How can we encourage that person’s faith? How can our celebration of God’s love help another to grow in faith and love? How can we, together, make a difference in the lives of others, and in the world around us? This is our calling as Christians: to love, to show mercy, to encourage and strengthen one another’s faith.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Christian fellowship is a gift of grace from God
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who was executed in 1945 for his opposition to the Nazi regime, spent several years in the late 1930s training students and pastors for ministry. In spite of the risks, Bonhoeffer took great courage from being in fellowship with these Christians. In his short reflection on that experience, entitled “Life Together,” Bonhoeffer writes: “How inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who…live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians!…Such a fellowship is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God….Let those who have had the privilege of living a life with other Christians praise God's grace from the bottom of their heart.”
To me, this truth becomes even more real when our two congregations gather for worship. Our presence, our shared witness, our celebration of God’s love through the sacrament of Holy Communion reminds us that it is by God’s grace that we are a strong and healthy and vibrant body of Christ. And we are to be thankful.
We have seen Jesus!
On the day of Easter, we have proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus and celebrated the love of God. Now, in this season of Easter, let us join with the disciples in telling others—one another, our family and loved ones, those beyond our communities of faith—about the love and mercy of God. For like Mary Magdalene, like the disciples, and like Thomas, who doubts no more, we have seen Jesus.