Sunday, April 11, 2021

The center of the wide circumference

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Second Sunday of Eastertide (Thomas Sunday/Quasimodo), 11 April 2021

Texts: Isaiah 26:1-9, 19; 1 John 5:1-5, John 20:19-31

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”


Collect of the Day

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Thomas C. Oden
1931 - 2016

“We are searching for the center of the wide circumference of Christian experience,” wrote the late Thomas Oden in his classic work, After Modernity . . . What? I may have told you Oden’s story, or some of it, before. He was hardly a model of orthodoxy when he started out as a theologian. In fact, he was very much into theological fads during the heyday of theological fads, the 1960’s and early 1970’s. But then, something happened. He started reading the Church Fathers. He started getting in touch with the classical faith—and he came to realize that everything he needed to know about Christianity he could learn from the writings of the first five centuries of the undivided Church. So, it became his goal as a theologian, he often liked to say, “to make no new contribution to theology.”

You can understand, then, why he would say, “Suppose the prophets  were right, that God's will is revealed through historical events, and hence that God's will is finally knowable only at the conclusion of the drama of history. Theology would then be intent on trying to understand, if possible the anticipated end of the process, beyond all current historical alienations, finitude, blindness, and sin.”

Indeed, searching for “the center of the wide circumference of Christian experience” is not going to lead you to anything new. Rather, it is going to lead you to that end that makes all things new.

Suppose that Isaiah was right when he said, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.”

Now, don’t just suppose the prophet is right. Believe he is right. Have faith that the Word of God is accurate—and that will lead you right to the center.

“What is the center?” Oden asks. “Resurrection,” he affirms, “as interpersonal meeting with the living Christ. Not resurrection as idea or past event but resurrection as a currently experienced interpersonal encounter. This is why interpersonal meeting has been the central feature of Christian theology from its inception.”

It is, of course, another man named Thomas, one who knew Jesus personally, who drives this point home so very succinctly. The hardcore skeptic—“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.”—becomes the humble and devoted believer—“My Lord and my God!”

But must one see to believe? Jesus acknowledges that Thomas believes because he has seen. But then he says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Believing without seeing—without having the benefit of the Risen Christ in bodily form standing right in front of you, pointing to his wounds and saying, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side.”—that is taking faith to the next level.

Not even Thomas would have that benefit forever. Yet, he carried the Gospel all the way to India, and there gave his life for his Lord and his God.

“We today must learn to think historically in the Hebraic sense if we are to make sense of this central proclamation of Christianity,” Oden says. “Seen in this frame of reference, the resurrection is so decisive that the importance of all other theological issues pales beside it. It focuses on nothing less than the final revelation of the will of God in history.”

It should be obvious but, in a day when even people who flout their clergy credentials say otherwise, it needs to be shouted from the mountaintops. 

There is nothing more transcendent, nothing more decisive, in all of human history than the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Nothing else even comes close.

“The earliest church,” Oden continues, “reasoned in this way: In Jesus' resurrection the end is already present, in an anticipated sense. Thus the will of God is finally revealed. So to participate in Christ is already to share in the events of the last days. It all made reasonable sense, seen from within the assumptions of Jewish historical reasoning, transformed by a living encounter with the resurrected Jesus.”

There is nothing more transcendent, nothing more decisive, in all of human history than the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And history—all of history from the beginning to the present day to the end that will come on a day known only to God—makes no sense without it.

It made no sense to the disciples “on the evening of that day, the first day of the week.” They were meeting behind closed and locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” 

Jesus showed up and said, “Peace be with you.”

Then, it all made sense.

It made no sense for Thomas, who “was not with them when Jesus came,” to hear the other disciples saying, “We have seen the Lord.”

Eight days later, Jesus showed up again and he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put your hand out, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

Then, it all made sense.

John calls it “the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” 

It is the faith expressed by Thomas when he said to the risen Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” 

It is the faith that lives on beyond the testimony of those who have seen because Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

This “wide circumference of Christian experience” has a very definite center—and that center holds together the entirety of history under the sovereign will and purpose of a loving, merciful, and gracious God.

The truth that never gets old and is always and everywhere making all things new:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!


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