The Glory of God

Just ten days after the attacks in Boston, one of the victims gave a chilling testimony to the media about what happened in the moments after the bombs exploded.

She and others standing at the bar overlooking the street were blown off their feet and against the wall. Then, she remembered the smoke and screams which reminded her of 9-11. In an unwavering voice she spoke of how her foot suddenly felt like it was on fire, and she couldn’t put any weight on it.

Everyone started running for the back door of the bar. She called out for someone to help her, because she couldn’t move. She recalled how frightened she felt because no one seemed to be listening to her pleas for help. And then, everything went dark.

Reflecting on the trauma we watched on TV last week, my wife and I have talked about what we might have done if we found ourselves on that sidewalk in Boston watching the race when the bombs went off. Had we not been physically damaged by the shrapnel what would we have done? Started running away, focused on escaping the mayhem? Would we have been primarily motivated by self-preservation?

Or, would we have looked around us? Would we pay attention to where the greatest need was, and offer help? Would we have run against the crowd?

I must confess, I didn’t imagine I would be so altruistic and ready to help. I must confess, I would likely be one of those people running headlong to that back door focused on nothing else but getting out.

And for us Christians who have received Christ’s commandment “that we love one another,” we may be embarrassed, as I have been, at how poorly we put this command into practice.

In the Gospel passage today (John 13:31-35), we hear Jesus’ commandment to love. And what I find remarkable is that Jesus gives this commandment precisely at a time when everything but love was swirling about him. It was the night before his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus was a marked man. A target was on his back. And while Jesus was eating the Passover Meal with his disciples, Judas had just slipped out from the group to carry out his dastardly deed to betray Jesus.

And right after Jesus speaks the commandment to love, Peter falsely predicted that he would always be faithful and committed to Jesus – we know later that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.

So Jesus command to love is spoken right in the very midst of betrayal and violence. Not an easy situation in which to be preaching or practising love.

But it is precisely at these times when it matters the most. Jesus calls us to do this not in some abstract, ideal, fantasy world when it’s easy to love, but rather in the real world of violence and broken-ness. And that’s not easy.

This is one reason why we need to gather for worship from week to week –

We need to hear over and over again God’s good news in the midst of all around us that is un-loving.

We need to hear once more the story of the resurrection, the affirmation that life and God’s love is more powerful than death and sin.

We need to hear once more God’s undying love for us all, so that we can be strengthened to practice love toward others, when it counts the most.

I find it significant that we read the word “glory” some five times in this short Gospel text. Odd – even counter-intuitive – you would think, that “glory” is associated with the pretext of Jesus’ suffering and death. Perhaps this emphasis on the glory of God is to underscore that love is not just some Valentine’s Day, romantic, warm fuzzy feeling shared between people in a comfortable, safe place.

Love, on the other hand, is in the Christian faith, self-giving. It is something realized, and practiced, for others – especially when the going gets tough.

As difficult as it is, coming to that place of self-giving love often, in the testimony of people’s lives, happens right in the valley of the shadow of death: amidst loss, stress, disappointment, suffering and pain. The transformation people experience towards a renewed sense of God’s love in Christ Jesus occurs usually at their lowest point in life.

For a long time, the accumulation of personal wealth was the single most important goal for Millard Fuller. During the 1960s, making a pile of money was his singular goal from which he never wavered. Amassing a personal fortune, Fuller was the ultimate “success” story.

But he paid a high price for this. Fuller admitted later how it affected his personal integrity, his health, and his marriage. When his wife Linda left him and informed him that his Lincoln, the large house, the cottage on the lake, two speed boats and a maid did not make up for his absence from his family, he realized what he had sacrificed for money.

It was at that moment when a transformation occurred in his life – when he began focussing less on himself and more on others, more on living out God’s great love for himself, and for others.

In 1976, Millard Fuller founded Habitat for Humanity, one of the most transforming forces around the world today, drawing on local volunteers to build houses for those who have need.

From someone who was once only focussed on himself, Fuller was transformed to someone focussed on others, living out Jesus’ commandment to love one another. “I love God and I love people,” Fuller says now, “this is the focus of my life, and that is why I am doing it.”

I like the story of two young boys playing church. One of them was explaining to the other what all the parts of the liturgy were about.

“So, do you know what the pastor does at the end of the service when he does this?” And he made the sign of the cross.

“Yeah, sure,” the other boy chimed in, “it means some go this way out and the others go that way out!”

The boy was right. The cross sends us out and scatters us out into the world with Christ’s command to love, where we would least expect to do so. The really important thing for any church is not how many people the church can seat, but how many it sends out to love in real, practical ways. A self-giving love, in moments of human hardship, is the glory of God.

The victim of the Boston attacks who recently spoke to the media was told some days after her foot was amputated how she was rescued from the mayhem of that smoke-filled bar. She was told of how a couple of people risked their own lives to drag her to safety. Those two people resisted the temptation to run en masse with everyone else. They had the presence of mind to look around to see if anyone needed help. Amidst the chaos, they were able to express the love that Jesus was talking about, whether they knew it or not.

Glory be to God!

Where is God?

Where do we look for God when tragedy strikes? When bombs go off in public squares killing and maiming innocent lives? Where is God?

The Psalmist expresses what, in the Bible, is a consistent divine message whenever we find ourselves “in the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4):

Through the Psalmist God says, “Fear no evil …” How is that possible? Is this some trite expression oozing from the lips of a feel-good religionist?

The Psalmist does not deny the reality of evil nor its capacity to wreak mayhem. Yet, despite the real threat of evil, the Psalmist has adopted a resolute stance: No Fear.

But why are we not to be afraid? On what grounds are we not to fear? Is it because the police are already on the scene? Is it because enhanced surveillance methods will allow law enforcement officials to identify the perpetrators more quickly and effectively? Is it because our military has new tools to exact vengeance so that the ‘bad guys’ will never hurt anyone again? Is this why we should not fear?

Our reaction to terror over the last twelve years hasn’t really gotten rid of this fear, has it? A hard-hitting, “shock-and-awe” response was widely thought to be the tonic for getting us over our fear and punishing our enemies. Has it worked?

I suspect we are still very, very fearful. The events in Boston over the last six days have proven it to me. And yet, God’s message comes again: “Do not fear …” Why?

“…. for You are with me.” It’s the core claim of biblical faith that there is but one God and that all trust belongs to that God. We are in a relationship of grace with God. We aren’t alone, even in that valley.

Perhaps we need to confess that when trouble comes we compulsively try to find solace in every place but the proper one. We tend to look for God in places that do not, in the end, communicate the transforming power of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We tend, do we not, to look for God in places of our own doing — efforts and demonstrations of power and influence: Our successes; Our praise-worthy accomplishments; Our ‘winning’ at the game of life? Are these the places where Jesus will find us with his transforming love?

In the Gospel text, Jesus is walking under the Portico of Solomon in the temple at Jerusalem. This was the sheltered walkway — a natural place for someone to find refuge on a cold, blustery, winter’s day. But to leave it there would be to miss the significance of where Jesus was found:

This portico lined the perimeter of the temple. Jesus was walking around the outer edge of the temple during the Dedication. The Dedication was the annual festival celebrating the political triumph of the Maccabean revolt that restored Jewish control of the temple following its desecration by Antiochus IV in 167 B.C.E. So, being at the temple itself was a big deal on this very holy day.

And where one stood in the temple was significant. The Holy of Holies was at the centre of the temple, where only the High Priest entered once a year. The farther “out” from the centre, the less important you were. Conversely, the closer to the centre of the temple building you were allowed to go, the higher status you held in the religious world of the day.

Jesus was not where we might initially think he should be; that is, closer to the Holy of Holies. Instead, he was in that part of the temple where the common people were allowed to enter.

Where does God choose to be revealed? In places we would not normally look for God. Jesus was born in a manger, not in a palace. Jesus died on a cross, a criminal of the state, not on a comfortable bed surrounded by adoring loved ones and the best medical attention. How could God be like that?

Yet, this is Jesus — the God we worship and confess as our Lord and Saviour. If we are looking for positive change in our lives, if we seek personal transformation, if we yearn for a new beginning and resurrection in our lives — then we cannot jump from Palm Sunday (Hosanna!) to Easter (Alleluia!) and bypass Good Friday (The Cross!).

Success doesn’t come without embracing failure. New life doesn’t come without losing something precious. Receiving doesn’t happen without giving.

Some of us with children have expressed concern about all the horrific images they  may see on TV news reports over the past week from Boston. The vivid and terrible images of devastation on a sidewalk could be traumatic, for anyone, to watch over and over again. What can we say to our children who could be adversely affected and overcome by fear, by watching this?

“Do not be afraid”, for focus your attention on those who are helping. Look at the first-responders as they risk their own lives in a chaotic, uncertain and dangerous environment providing care, love and compassion to the victims. “… for You are with me.”

Where is God? God is revealed in places where we would least expect. And in those moments of human frailty and weakness — not by denying our wounds and pretending we can by our efforts alone be perfect and invincible — God is with us. Jesus’ wounded hands will hold us. God will not abandon us in our greatest sorrow and vulnerability. In those places — on the ‘perimeter’, on the edge, of our lives — God will bring us to the fullness of life.

Thanks to Timothy F. Simpson, “The 23rd Psalm in an Age of Terror: A Pastoral Response to Boston”, posted on 16 April 2013.

Signs of hope on the road to Damascus

Not only is the call to differentiation a personal challenge but a societal one as well.

Even reformist movements, such as the Arab Spring which first began to spread across the Middle East in March 2011, can fail to represent and cherish the religious diversity in those countries.

I attended a moving presentation a couple nights ago by a Syrian Christian, Huda Kandalaft of Ottawa, who spoke about the plight of Christian minorities in predominantly Arab states such as Syria. She showed us video of the destruction of various places of worship in her home town, Homs, including Presbyterian, Catholic and Orthodox churches. Huda described how the home of her childhood was bombed, and when she received the tragic news of the brutal murder of her cousin in the streets.

Christians there are a minority. They make up about 10% of the population of Syria. Under the Assad regime, while the laws prohibited proselytization, churches and mosques co-existed in relative peace. Huda told us how in Homs she grew up walking past the mosque across the street from her church. As long as the faithful kept their activities within their walls, there was religious stability in society.

Not being permitted to express faith in the public realm is not religious freedom. At least compared to what we in Canada have celebrated as a multicultural society. We still live in a nation where Christians are free to exercise their conscience in public spaces.

But some elements in the Arab Spring movements call for zero tolerance of religious diversity and the squashing out of the minorities. Christians in Syria feel that the opposition movement trying to topple their government may mean that the extreme Islamists will take power and not allow Christians to live their faith and even worship God in their country.

It’s a very complicated situation for Christians there. Many flee the violence. The population of Homs, for example, has been depleted. Only a handful of Christians remain. They don’t hold regular worship services anymore. So, what do they do?

One place is a nursing home caring for the elderly. It is run by the Roman Catholic nun and priest. Another is a school for all children who still live in Homs. In the basement of an Orthodox church members teach children the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Christians are still living out their call to share the love of Jesus even as they are so desperate in need.

These are signs of hope. In the care of the weak and vulnerable. In the faces of Syrian children.

In a recent phone call to the people in the Homs nursing home they were asked, “What can we do for you?”; they answered, “Pray for us.”

Two thousand years ago a man by the name of Saul was on a dusty road to Damascus in Syria, “breathing threats” against the Christians there (Acts 9:1-20). He job was to persecute the Christians in a time when any threat to the dominant political and religious powers of the day was stomped out. Diversity was not tolerated, to say the least.

Yet, on that road to Damascus, the power of God not only effectively stopped Saul from his evil intent, but turned it on its head. “I am Jesus, whom you persecute”. A voice from the whirlwind brought Saul to his knees.

In a moment of dramatic conversion, Saul’s heart was turned around. His journey continued to Damascus. But now, to be a champion of the Christian movement. His letters that form most of the New Testament testify to the profound theological legacy for Christians throughout the ages.

Is there hope for Christians persecuted in the world today? Even though, amidst the violence, destruction and death, it’s difficult to see — we do believe in a God who brings life out of death, new beginnings out of old patterns, hope and joy out of despair. We believe in a God who can turn the hearts of even the most frightening threat.

Therefore, we can pray for Syria, in confidence and faith.

Read“A Call to Prayer: Syria” in Glad Tidings, March/April 2013, by Huda Kandalaft

A Prayer for Christians in Syria

Let us pray,

Though we may be separated by thousands of kilometers and decades of memory, on this day and at this time we lift our hearts in your presence, O God, in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in faith in the Holy Lands. Especially we pray for the Christians of Syria.

In their pain, in their fear, in their anger and anxiety – you show them the wound in your side and marks of torture in your hands. Come close to all who suffer in any way, so that we may come close to you, who knows our every thought, fear, pain and anger.

May we share in the new life you have made possible for us. By the power of your Spirit, may we do what we can across the oceans and the ages to bear witness to the hope, faith, peace and love you would have for all people, in Christ Jesus our living God.

Dare to be you

In my life as an identical twin, unrealistic expectations of my twin-hood abounded. On the one hand, people presumed my brother and I are identical — I mean perfectly duplicate copies of each other. On the other hand, people loved to compare and contrast, presuming — as I always have — that there are inherent differences.

The ‘identical twin’ designation is nevertheless a misnomer. Being an identical twin doesn’t mean I am a copy-cutter, mirror-image of my twin brother David. We are actually different!

And yet, my twin identity has contributed — I think — to some attitudes with which I’ve lived most of my life, attitudes that may not have been entirely helpful to my growth and maturity and development, spiritual and otherwise.

Particularly, I remember how important it was for me to recognize my own path, my own unique identity — apart from David’s. Until I was able to claim a unique place within the fabric of my family, my community of friends and church I often felt compelled to incessantly compare myself to David, which was exhausting and emotionally draining.

Until I could say to myself that “I am who I am” on my own two feet, I would too easily slip into negativity and self-rejection. Either because I was not good enough compared to David, or I had to be someone that I wasn’t, or better than I was. Or, relish in the victory that I beat out David in some way — for the moment, anyway!

From this kind of thinking emerges a work ethic, which is not unlike what many of us have likely heard or told ourselves growing up: “Try harder!” “You’re no good the way you are; you have to try to be something and someone that you aren’t now.” The striving and activity characterizing religion today has as its starting point: self-negation, self-rejection. “I’m no good the way I am; I have to get better.” Or, “we’re not good the way we are; we have to get better.”

In and of itself, this motivation is not bad. A yearning for completion, for healing and growth, for communion with God and one another is good and healthy. Denying our brokenness and sin is dangerous and ultimately destructive.

But when this desire becomes ego-centric in expressions of false humility or justifications for staying stuck — mired in a pious negativity (“I/we can’t do that; I’m/we’re no good” — we can so easily miss recognizing the whole point of our journeys of faith (“Yes I/we can, because of God’s grace and love!”).

Christians believe we are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27); we all have the imprint of God on our lives. But everyone doesn’t manifest the same divine qualities. Even identical twins!

Each of us reflects a unique aspect of God’s character. And this truth results in different gifts, different energies. Different ways of dealing with a similar situation, even. All good. All part of the beautiful diversity of creation.

Sometimes I wonder whether we haven’t confused the voice of brokenness and sin in each of us with our diversity. That just because you do something differently from me, just because you react in a different way to a situation we both face, just because you are different from me — that somehow either I have the right way and you have the wrong way, either you are sinful and I am righteous or vice versa, or we’re better than them.

What if by digging a bit deeper we recognize a shared truth about ourselves and our Lord? What if by inquiring a bit further we discover that it’s not that we’re better than them, but that they have simply gone about it in a different way — a way with which we’re merely unfamiliar. What if it’s not either/or? What if it’s both/and? And this awareness starts, I believe, not by insisting on conformity in the church, but by acknowledging, recognizing and celebrating our diversity.

Our diversity and variety make us whole and complete, as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). All parts are needed for the health of the Body, as Paul famously writes in his letter to the Corinthian Church. We can’t all be eyes, or we wouldn’t have a body. We can’t all be legs; that would look like a very funny body! We can’t all be hair, or we would be Tribbles on an old Star Trek episode — the Trouble with Tribbles! We are not like-minded people even though we belong to the same church — but we never were!

And that’s good! The way it ought to be!

During our weekly lectionary study, some of you noticed that John seemed particularly interested in mentioning that the disciples caught precisely 153 fish after following the instruction from Jesus to throw the net on the right side of the boat (John 21:1-19). Why mention an exact number: 153? Why not simply write: “They caught a whole mother-lode of fish!”?

Initially I just thought John throws a number out there simply to indicate that the disciples counted all the fish that would potentially be sold on the market, as professional fishers would do. This is not some made-up story, after all. This post-resurrection account is grounded in the economic reality of the day. These fishermen have to make a living off the fish they catch, right?

An early thinker, writer and leader in the church, Jerome, wrote in the fifth century that at the time it was assumed that there was a grand total of 153 species of fish. He went on to interpret that the 153 was a reference to the “completeness” of the church, which embraces all people (p.11, Richard Rohr, The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective). Suffice it to say, the citing of a number here is not arbitrary, but has a symbolic value and is therefore intentionally written such.

In the Gospel story, we witness two very different responses to Jesus in Peter and John: Peter, consistent with his impulsive character, jumps in the water and swims to Jesus. He’s all about action.

John, on the other hand, is the first to recognize that it is the Lord (v.7). His gift is recognition. What gift is this, you might ask? A very important one, evidently: It wasn’t just Mary who couldn’t at first recognize the risen Lord standing right in front of her in the garden the morning of the resurrection (20:11-18). In the locked, upper room the text suggests the frightened disciples don’t immediately recognize it is Jesus who comes and says, “Peace be with you”; it isn’t until they see his wounds that they can confess who he is (20:19-29). In Luke’s account of the post-resurrection appearances, the twins walked about ten kilometers from Jerusalem to Emmaus talking to a stranger they didn’t recognize was Jesus himself! (Luke 24:13-35). Being able to recognize the living Jesus in our midst, in the course of our daily lives — this is a gift. And John has it.

Peter is about action. John is about understanding. John doesn’t jump in the water and swim to shore. Peter doesn’t reflect, contemplate and perceive. Each does their part. Both have their unique gifts to bring to the disciples’ collective experience of the risen Lord. One without the other is inadequate. One is not better than the other. Both are equally valuable, even though they represent such diverse expressions of faith.

The church today needs a variety of gifts in order to respond fully to Christ’s presence in the world today, and in our lives. The church today — we — need to set aside our claims of priority and work together in patience, forgiveness and devotion to Jesus Christ who is alive! That goes not only for us in our congregation, but in terms of how we relate to other congregations, our Synod, our national church, other Lutheran and non-Lutheran denominations.

What are our unique gifts? What do we bring to the table? What are the gifts in those we meet who are very different from us?

Let’s dare to be who we are! Let’s embrace our individuality!

Doubting Thomas – reconciled

Douglas “Pete” Peterson was a US Air force pilot who during the Vietnam War flew hundreds of bombing missions over North Vietnam. Then in September 1966 his plane was hit by a missile and he had to eject, landing with broken bones in a Mango tree near a small village.

Knowing who this man was and where he came from, the angry villagers paraded him around town like a hunting trophy. Treating him like dirt, they dragged him down dusty roads and jeered and taunted him, eventually landing him in the Prisoner of War jail otherwise known to American POWs as the “Hanoi Hilton”. There he spent the next several years of his life until finally released in the mid-seventies.

Reflecting on his harrowing ordeal years later, Pete Peterson said that he had no intention of becoming a “career POW” and that God had not saved his life for him to be angry.

He was appointed by then President Clinton to be the first US ambassador to Vietnam since the war. It was awkward for both parties – first for the Vietnamese to receive a man who had killed many of their military and civilian population during those countless bombing raids.

On the other hand, for Peterson it was a challenge to be a diplomat working with the Vietnamese government who were ultimately responsible for the “lost” years of his life enduring torture and threat of death in the “Hanoi Hilton”.

A special moment came four months after he took up his post in May 1997. On the 10th of September – the same day he had been shot down 31 years earlier – Peterson revisited An Doai, the village where he had been taken prisoner.

He drank tea with Nguyen Viet Chop and Nguyen Danh Xinh – two of the men who had dragged him back to the village through the rice paddies. And he walked through the fields, holding hands with the grandson of one of his former captors, to the mango tree in which he had fallen 31 years earlier.

Peterson said that day: “I return here not to re-live what was probably the most unhappy day of my life, but to signify to the entire world that reconciliation is not only possible but absolutely the way to reach out.”

In his four years as Ambassador, Peterson became – in the words of one reporter – a “billboard for reconciliation”. Peterson himself confessed that working for the Vietnamese on behalf of the United States, he had to “check hate at the door”.

And what did reconciliation, love and grace accomplish?

He was instrumental in advocating for a helmet law for cyclists and moped riders in Vietnam. Also, a study he helped set up discovered that the leading cause of death among children in Vietnam was not disease, but accidental drowning.

It was calculated that in Vietnam every hour one toddler drowned. A large portion of Vietnam is covered in lakes and rivers and rice paddies. Also most people can’t swim – so parents don’t teach their children. The organization Peterson helped found lobbied policy makers so that today, the Vietnamese government has instituted swimming lessons in the schools with the hope that by 2020 every Vietnamese child leaving secondary school will be able to swim.

Today in the Gospel text we read the story about the “Doubting Thomas” (John 20:19-31). Often our first thoughts about this story center on the question of doubt in a life of faith; “Do not doubt but believe!” is the thematic call-sign for this annual Easter story.

The end of the story nevertheless implies a very important theme we may overlook. While we don’t know for certain, I believe it is fair to assume that Thomas is reconciled to his community of faith.

There’s a moving scene in the 2003 film, “The Gospel of John” (directed by Philip Saville), where Thomas returns to his community of faith in the upper room. He comes back a week later – how and why we really don’t know. Perhaps, after sensing the futility of remaining cut off from them, he was going to give his cohorts a second chance. Perhaps he “checked hatred at the door” and felt he had nothing to lose by showing up and seeing first hand if what they said was true: that Jesus was alive.

And when Jesus does appear and gives personal attention to Thomas, Thomas weeps. Watching this scene, you can feel the emotional release: all the pent up anger, fear and cynicism just surrendered in the wash of Jesus’ love and compassion for Thomas. “My Lord, and my God” Thomas is finally able to confess. His confession signals his reconciliation with Jesus and with his community of faith.

God is about reconciliation. God’s mission on earth is about reconciling those who have been divided. Paul calls it the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5). Where reconciliation happens – as it did for Thomas and Jesus in the Upper Room two thousand years ago; as it did for Pete Peterson and Nguyen Viet Chop in a Vietnamese rice field sixteen years ago – there God is.

So let us pray for, and work towards, reconciliation: Where there is division and hatred, may God’s grace and love and forgiveness heal, restore and reconcile. The Easter message is about second chances, new beginnings, new life, new opportunities, starting over. It was for Thomas and Jesus. It was for Pete Peterson and the Vietnamese.

May it be for us, as well.

You can read the entire, moving story of Pete Peterson in BBC News Magazine, 22 March 2013, “Pete Peterson: The exPOW teaching Vietnam how to swim” by William Kremer, BBC World Service

Who’s giving church a 2nd chance?

In the Gospel of John, especially in the latter chapters, we can see how clearly the point is made that it is the very work of God and the Holy Spirit – the Advocate – to engender love and trust in the community of faith. Jesus prays that his disciples might be one – united (John 17). The story of the “Doubting Thomas” (John 20:19-31) is placed in contrast to this general theme of the Spirit’s work to create trust, unity and love among believers.

When I read again the assigned Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter about the “Doubting Thomas”, I wonder: Why wasn’t Thomas with the group of disciples when Jesus first appeared to them? You would think he could find comfort and strength in numbers; you would think he could find needed support and solace from his group of co-religionists – so to speak – especially after the death and burial of Jesus, after their hopes were dashed, and they were afraid for their lives.

Why wasn’t Thomas with them? Did he finally just throw in the towel with disgust over something someone said to him? Was there a “personality conflict” brewing? Was he offended by what someone did? Was Thomas harboring resentment and bitterness over something that happened in the group? And was just looking for the first excuse to jump ship? Whatever the case may be, he had already removed himself from the community of faith before Jesus appeared to the disciples the first time.

Then, when his cohorts share the news of Jesus’ resurrection with him, Thomas rejects their witness. He doesn’t believe them. Thomas rebuffs the very friends with whom he had shared a couple of wonderful, wild, inspiring years with Jesus. Is this his way of getting back at them?

It is important to note here that Thomas not only expresses disbelief in the claim or proposed idea of Jesus’ resurrection; he also rejects his community’s witness to that claim. That is important to distinguish. We’re not just talking about doctrine per se here – you know, whether you believe the resurrection or not as Thomas did and did not. We are also and just as importantly talking about believing in the words and witness of those making that claim.

Unfortunately, by his rejection of the witness of his faith community, Thomas undermines the community Jesus prayed for and tries to build. But I don’t want to join the ranks of Christians over the centuries who have interpreted Thomas exclusively in a bad light.

Because he went back. And he was blown away to see Jesus again. What do you think Thomas learned from his encounter with the risen Christ? From that point on, did Thomas start trusting the words and witness of his friends? I hope so. I hope his encounter with Jesus changed him so that he could come to trust again.

Thomas gave his community of faith a second chance. Can we? Can we give one another a chance? Can we give the Church a chance? After all, that is what Easter is about: a new beginning, a fresh start, a new chance at life in the Body of Christ – the Church.

We can take a helpful cue from this story. Perhaps we need to carefully consider how Thomas can reflect current realities and challenges in the Church.

What do you think about the radical suspicion, distrust, and disbelief projected against the Church today – admittedly some for very good reason. And yet, I wonder if such detraction is not a general sign of the times. Don’t we live in a distrusting, suspicious society, to begin with? Aren’t we told, even by our fathers and mothers growing up, “not to trust anyone” as if this is a value – a life-skill – for successful living? How grievous.

Perhaps we can think of individuals who project a radical suspicion, distrust, and disbelief about the world, the church, the government. Perhaps we think of individuals who will not trust others in the church, the disparager, the cynic, the one who refuses to believe. Perhaps we can think of those who look for any excuse to leave the Church and point accusatory fingers at believers who are as sinful and in need of God’s grace as the next person. Perhaps we can think of those who react to the slightest offense. We are Thomas, to be sure, each and every one of us.

Can we learn to believe not simply in the goodness of the Lord, but in the goodness of one another, and our witness to God’s work in our lives and the world?

I paid particular attention a few years’ back listening and watching Justin Trudeau give the eulogy at his father’s funeral service. His father, the former Prime Minister of Canada, was a controversial figure in Canadian political history who had many enemies. And Justin remembered an incident when he was a very young boy, when his father taught him a very valuable lesson in how to relate to those with whom you differ: He said:

“As on previous visits this particular occasion included a lunch at the parliamentary restaurant which always seemed to be terribly important and full of serious people that I didn’t recognize.

“But …. I recognized one whom I knew to be one of my father’s chief rivals.

“Thinking of pleasing my father, I told a joke about him — a generic, silly little grade school thing.

“My father looked at me sternly …and said: `Justin, Never attack the individual. We can be in total disagreement with someone without denigrating them as a consequence.’

“Saying that, he stood up and took me by the hand and brought me over to introduce me to this man. He was a nice man who was eating there with his daughter ….

“He spoke to me in a friendly manner for a bit and it was at that point that I understood that having opinions that are different from those of another does not preclude one being deserving of respect as an individual.”

I have considered these words in light of Jesus’ prayer that his disciples be one. To experience this unity, do we not, as I said, have to believe not simply in the goodness of the Lord, but in the goodness of one another? Because we are part of the body of the living Lord. The presence of God’s Spirit in Christ lives in us. What would it be like in the Church if every time we met we would try to see Christ in each other’s faces and lives. What difference could that make?

You might notice that in most of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, he is revealed among believers gathered together – rarely alone. The revelation of the living God in Jesus Christ is received in the community of faith, not apart from it.

When Thomas gives his disciple friends another chance, when he finds it in his heart finally to re-enter the community, to begin relating again with them, to face the music, to engage the sometimes messy and challenging relational realities there, to deal with his disappointments and frustrations of the community, and to come out of his isolation, that is when the risen Jesus breaks into their midst and is revealed in all truth and love to the doubting Thomas. The invitation is always open for healing, forgiveness and reconciliation within the Body of Christ.

God will not stop breaking into our midst – amid our fears and doubts and conflicts. The living Lord Jesus will continue to surprise us by his presence among us. He will be revealed in all truth, grace and love, and bring us peace – this is the promise of the Gospel today.

I believe God must be so happy when members of Christ’s Church on earth are reconciled to one another after being divided and conflicted. I believe God, our heavenly parent, must rejoice when brothers and sisters in Christ work towards greater unity amongst themselves.

After all, we are the children of God. God loves us. And God, our heavenly Father, wants us to live in unity, mutual respect and harmony.