Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Sunday, April 7, 2013

LEAP OF FAITH: The Journey of the 'Doubting Thomas' and Ours

LEAP OF FAITH: The Journey of the 'Doubting Thomas' and Ours

 The Rev. Dr. Fred Vergara, St. James Elmhurst, NY 4/7/13*

Scripture: John 20:19-31: The doubting Thomas, upon seeing the risen Christ, exclaimed “My Lord and my God.”

Leap of Faith
“My Lord and my God!”  What leap of faith and what a journey of life for the apostle Thomas.  A moment ago, he did not believe. Now he believes.  A moment ago, he was not ready to follow Jesus. Now he is ready to go where He leads him to go. At the death of Jesus, his faith drooped; at the rising of Jesus, his faith was revived. 

After the resurrection, Thomas and the revived apostles proclaimed the Gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and to the ends of the world. Thomas became an apostle to India, where he introduced Christianity and planted churches until he was martyred in Madras (now Chennai). Today, Mar Thoma Church is one of the churches in India, who claim their origin from the missionary work of  the once "doubtingThomas."

The faith-journey of Thomas mirrors our own. At some point, we climb the heights of faith; at other times, we backslide. By the grace of God, when our dreams fade and our hopes droop, we begin to see a new revelation that makes us want to move on. At the death of Jesus, the apostles when back fishing, the job they were accustomed to doing. At the rising of Jesus, they renewed their commitment to be “fishers of men” again, the ministry that they were trained to be. 

Levels of Knowing Jesus                                                                                                              
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, the father of “existentialism,” wrote that there are three levels of knowing Jesus: the aesthetic level, the ethical level and the spiritual level.  At what level of faith are you on? Will you be willing to take a leap of faith and move on?

By the way, since this is my first sermon in this congregation, I must say to you, at the outset, that I am a three-point preacher. No matter what scriptures, I read, I always find three points. One time, a youth member of my former parish asked “Father Fred, why do you always have three points? “ and I replied, three reasons: one, I am a Trinitarian; two I am the third child in my family; and three, survey said that the most that people can remember in a sermon is three points. And I told the young man, “When you grow old like me, there are three things you will lose. First is your hair, second is your memory, the third, I could not remember.”

The best three point sermon was done by John Wesley, the Anglican priest who founded the Methodist Church. It was a sermon on money. Wesley said, “First point, we must earn as much money as we can.” And all Anglicans said, “Amen!”  Second point, Wesley said, “we must save as much money as we can.” And all Anglicans said, “Amen!” Third point, Wesley said, “we must give as much money as we can.” And all Anglicans prayed, “Lord, have mercy.”

Aesthetic Level
Aesthetic means cosmetics or the external beauty. If you want to have a facial, you go for cosmetology. If you want to change your face and make your lips look like Angelina Jolie’s, you go to cosmetic surgery. External beauty is called aesthetics.

To know Jesus in the aesthetic level is to see him as the image of God. Colossians 1:15 says, “Jesus is the image of the invisible God; the first born of all creation.” This is the most elementary way of knowing Jesus. Jesus is the image, the icon, the representation of God.

In India, the predominant religion is Hinduism. There are over 33 million gods in the Hindu religion. When you walk in Calcutta, most likely you would bump into a god. Jesus is one of their gods, one of their avatars, one of the icons of God. He can be placed alongside a monkey god and no one will notice his uniqueness. He could just be one of the 33 million models of God.

I was once wondering why fashion designers often choose slim, thin or emaciated ladies to model their designs. Later I learned from one couturier that the reason why he chose thin ladies was this: “models do not express themselves; they express the clothes I design. In other words, they have to be thin because they serve as hangers.”

The problem in knowing Jesus simply as a hanger or a model of God is that models change. Take for example the model of courtship. During my father’s time, the men were expressive of their love. They sang songs like
My love is deep as the sea that flows forever                                                                           
You ask me when will it end? I tell you never. 

During my time, we were subdued, but nevertheless poetic. And we sang songs like
No, I never meant to love you;No I never meant to care.                            
But I guess you never notice just how often I was there?

Today, the model of courtship has changed. It’s like “gangnam style.” The young people simply sing,
Baby, baby, baby O; Like baby, baby, baby Oh!

The Ethical Level
The second level of knowing Jesus is the ethical level. This means knowing Jesus not only as a model of God but the reality of God. Being co-equal with the Father-God and the Spirit-God is the uniqueness of Jesus, the Son-God. Models may change but the reality does not. Jesus as God is the same “yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).  He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

Knowing Jesus in the ethical level leads to commitment.  Thomas learned that the power within him was greater than that of the world. But it was only head knowledge. His behavior did not change. Faced with pressures in life, he rationalizes. This is called paralysis of analysis. But when he saw Jesus going through the closed door and heard him speak, he made a leap of faith. Then he decided to obey Him even unto death.  

In 1517, the German monk named Martin Luther, nailed down a piece of paper on the door of the church in Wittenberg. The paper contained 95 theses or reasons condemning the corrupt practices of the Roman Catholic Church of his time. These theses set of the Protestant Reformation. When he was excommunicated and condemned by the papacy of his time, he said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

I’m sorry that I could not remember those 95 theses of Luther. Had he broken them down to only three theses, I might have remembered, but that’s another story. The point I am driving at, is that ethics (behavior) and faith intersect. You should practice what you preach. Worship and work must be one. When you know that Jesus is not just one model of 33 million gods but the one, unique, solitary God, then your ethics should change. You make a decision. Like Luther, you make a stand. Someone said that if you don’t stand on something, you will fall for anything. 

The Spiritual Level
This is the highest level of faith, the faith that surpasses human understanding, the lot of the mystics. The spiritual level means knowing Jesus not only as the aesthetic model of God, not only as the reality of God but as the experience of God. Jesus told his apostles prior to his departure, “Those who believe in me will do the works that I do and will even do greater deeds, because I go to the Father” (John 14:12).

Are you able to believe that you will experience the power that Jesus had given the apostles? Will there be signs and wonders when you proclaim the message of God? Will there be healing of the sick, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for captives, liberation of the oppressed and hope for the poor? Will you, like St. Peter on the Day of Pentecost, be able to preach one sermon and convert 3,000 people or the other way around, that is, preach 3,000 sermons and convert yourself? Will you, like St. Paul be able to establish churches by way of writing epistles?

When Jesus died, the apostles went back fishing. This is called “backsliding.” From being “fishers of men” that Jesus called them to be, they returned to being fishermen. Do you know the difference between fishermen and fishers of men? The fishermen catch fish alive and put them down dead. The fishers of men catch men dead and put them down alive. In mission and evangelism, we proclaim Jesus who came that you may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). The spiritual level of knowing Jesus makes us experience the faith of Jesus to move mountains.

The Questions
This is my first sermon here as your new priest.  I was appointed by the bishop last April 1, 2013 with the implied mandate of reviving the church. April 1 is also known as“All Fools Day.” Through this week, as I go through transition, I meditate on what it means to be a “fool for Christ” and asking myself these foolish questions: “Are you he who is to come or shall they wait for another?” “What makes you different from the other priests before you?” “Are you able to turn this church around?” “Are you able to revive this church?”

My answer is, “No, I am not a messiah.  I cannot revive this church; I cannot turn this church around. But I will help the people of God at St. James Church to know Jesus more and more. So that knowing Him, they may love Him; and by loving Him, they may serve Him.  By knowing Jesus, by loving Jesus and by serving Jesus, the Holy Spirit will empower us to turn this Church around.”

Like St. Thomas and St. James and all the apostles, we shall know Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord. He is the Christ who cannot be buried below the ground. He is the Christ who got out of the tomb. He is the Christ who rose on high and ascended to the Father. He is the Christ who spoke peace and said, “Fear not.”

I will help you to know Jesus as the image of God, the reality of God and the experience of God and together we shall see the fruits of our faith. We shall put our faith in Jesus who can meet our deepest needs, mend our broken hearts, wipe the tears from our eyes and lead us to life abundant. Today, at St. James Church, a new journey begins. Because He lives, we shall face tomorrow! Amen.

(Note the first service had doubled in attendance compared to the previous Sundays and the offertory has tripled than the past, truly an encouraging sign. St. James Church at 84-07 Broadway, Elmhurst, New York is  a historical church founded in 1704. Among its earliest rectors were the Rt. Rev. Samuel Seabury, Jr. who became the first Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Moore who became the first president of Columbia University.  Once a Dutch neighborhood, Elmhurst is now multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. There is a rapidly-growing Chinatown and Southeast Asian enclaves along with Latino-Hispanic, Caribean, West Indian and Italian clusters of communities.)

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