Sunday, April 12, 2015

I doubt it. Show me.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Five years ago, this Sunday, the second Sunday of Easter, my children were baptized at St. Paul and the Redeemer church in Chicago… As a family, we’re remembering that day today and remembering back even a little further to our journey to and from Ethiopia.

In the few days before we met our children, Ben and I stayed at the Hilton hotel in Addis Ababa, the capitol city of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a very faith-filled country and this is expressed in a whole variety of ways, from ancient historical sites to the tiniest architectural details in a hotel room—so for example, the detailing around the doorknob was in the shape of a cross. More dramatic was the swimming pool outside—a huge, cross-shaped pool, like a gigantic, ancient baptismal font with steps down into it and back up. The pool was empty when we first arrived. We figured at first that it was because it was late December… but as it turned out, it was just being cleaned. So on New Year’s Eve morning, the last day before we began the adventure of parenting, Ben noticed from our bird’s eye balcony view that the pool was almost full with fog surrounding it.

I almost missed the experience since the outside temperatures were not exactly warm, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go out there to swim… but Ben coaxed me to come so we both experienced this incredible cross-shaped pool, fed by hot springs. We were immersed in these waters as we waited to celebrate a new thing—as we said goodbye to one part of life (experiencing a little death) in order to welcome a new life (and resurrection). Did I mention that I almost missed it… because of my doubt?

Maybe that is why I have always felt compassion for Thomas—the doubter. Never mind that Thomas is remembered in the gospels for far more than just the story we heard today… other things Thomas said include:
When Jesus suggested going to Jerusalem and Thomas said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” [John 11:16]
Also, he asked Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? [John 13:5]

But in today’s gospel, we hear what Thomas is best known for—
“Thomas, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ [John 20:24-25] or in short… I doubt it. Show me.

Somehow, “doubting Thomas” was the name that stuck—an unfair nickname, maybe… so I appreciate Jesus’ response to Thomas. Since Thomas missed the first appearance to the eleven, Jesus comes again. Since Thomas needs to actually touch the wounds to believe, Jesus invites Thomas to touch him. Yes, Jesus says—blessed are all of you who believe without seeing—but Jesus also meets Thomas at his point of need.

And in a way, this is also the reason we baptize. God meets us at our place of need. It’s not so much that God needs us to be washed in these cleansing and refreshing waters—it’s that we need that physical reminder of God’s presence. In this sacrament, God makes ordinary water mixed with God’s word… extraordinary.

In this sacrament, we are marked with the cross of Christ forever because there will be days, weeks, even years when we are not so sure that we can believe in the resurrected Christ. There will be times when we are so filled with grief, fear, disbelief, even despair that we’ll say with Thomas, “Not until I see for myself… not until I can put my hands in the wounds…”

There are times when we cannot individually believe… that is when a community surrounding us, believing on our behalf will be so important.
Even before we believe, Jesus meets us… in water, at the table, and Jesus breathes on us, “Peace be with you.”

Here’s what we promise at baptism. We promise to continue a life of faith and to resist evil and to proclaim in word and deed the good news of God in Christ. We promise to love our neighbors and to strive for justice and peace. We promise to welcome newcomers into the house of God—and trust that all those welcomed here are our real family, not by blood, not merely because of legal documents, but by something far stronger—by the waters of baptism, by love. And we can renew these promises over and over throughout life, even daily. They are the promises that we remember all the way to death.

Even more significant than the promises we make around the baptismal font is the promise that God makes to us in baptism—that not even death, which can so sharply separate us from those we love, will ever separate us from the deep love of God. That whatever life brings, Jesus walks with us. That through all the changes and chances of life, the Holy Spirit is as present as our life-sustaining breath.

These are promises that we deeply need—because like Thomas, we are human—we struggle with grief and loss, loneliness and heartache, questions about identity and where we belong. We are both saints and sinners—sometimes there’s evidence of that in quicker succession than we can believe—and we live in a world that is broken and through which we can glimpse the greatness of God.

At the end of our week in Ethiopia, we had another opportunity to try out the cross-shaped pool, this time with Dinkenesh and Abenet. We had been together just six short days so our communication was still very limited but when we saw the pool, our children’s eyes got big. Do you want to try it? we asked. A quick shake of the head led us to the swings and playground equipment first. However, after about an hour, we asked again, showing them their new swimsuits. For me??? Mine??? Dinkenesh and Abenet asked with excitement. They grabbed onto us as we entered into the pool and then reacted with glee. We’re pretty sure this was a first swimming experience ever, but they took to the pool like fish coming home to water.

Baptism is like coming home to our first parent, our Creator, the One who has called each of us since we swam in our birth mother’s womb. In baptism, God reminds us that God adopts us… that Jesus walks with us as a loving sibling, One who knows our story, died and was raised so that we might know that there is hope in our daily struggles and that there is life beyond the grave. In baptism, we are filled with the Holy Spirit as our lungs are filled with breath, our cells with oxygen and our spirits with life.

So now, in Easter hope, let’s celebrate this day—with those who doubt, and yet have come to believe, with the great cloud of witnesses that includes Thomas, Clayton, and all who have died…that includes Christians throughout the world, and especially our loved ones in Cambodian, China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria, Papau New Guinea (to name just a few…) as well as those who are gathered in body and in spirit here today—celebrating God’s promise of resurrection and new life.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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