SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D ALLAN B. WARREN III AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, MAY 1, 2011, THE SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER

The reading from the Gospel which we just heard this morning, the last half of chapter 20, is the real ending of the Gospel of John.  There is an epilogue - chapter 21, Jesus’ appearance on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias - and there is a prologue, an introduction, the first 18 verses.  But it is clear that chapter 20 is the end.  The author, in fact, tells us so in the last two verses.  Moreover, it is chapter 20 which presents the climax of the whole book - Jesus’ appearance to Thomas and Thomas’ confession: “My Lord and my God.”

The introduction to the Gospel strongly suggested that this was coming: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  And the rest of the Gospel, as it records his miraculous origins and his teachings, as it recounts his betrayal and his death, as it proclaims his resurrection, the rest of the Gospel moves inexorably to this conclusion and climax: Thomas coming to faith in the risen Jesus and expressing that faith in the clearest and most uncompromising of terms: “My Lord and my God!”

As St. John portrays him this is quite characteristic of Thomas.  The Gospel presents Thomas the Apostle as loyal and steadfast, but also as rather matter-of-fact, if not blunt.  When Jesus proposes to return to Bethany to be with Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus who is ill - only a short distance from Jerusalem, where they had just tried to arrest him - Thomas finds this pretty rash, if not foolhardy and he exclaims to his fellow disciples - you can almost see him roll his eyes as he says it - “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus announces, “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.  And you know the way where I am going” - when Jesus makes this rather mysterious pronouncement, Thomas - so to speak - won’t let Jesus get away with it.  He, Thomas, asks the obvious question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how then can we know the way?”

And so it is completely characteristic of blunt, no-nonsense Thomas to refuse to believe without seeing.  It is equally characteristic of Thomas that, when he does see his risen Master, he proclaims his belief, as I said before, in the clearest and most uncompromising of terms, “My Lord and my God.”  What else could Jesus be?  He was risen.  He had overcome death.  He was risen.  All that evil, hatred, the devil, and sin managed to muster could not defeat him.  He was risen.  What else could one say, except “My Lord and my God”?

* * * * *

Words and events in the Gospel of John often have more than one meaning.  That is why the Fourth Gospel is so interesting: it is multi-faceted.  It has many levels of meaning, and they are usually at play at the same time.  This is true of the story we just heard and it is particularly true of Thomas’ exclamation.

In the Roman Empire every city or large town had a statue or bust of the reigning Emperor placed prominently in a public space.  This meant much more than our picture of the President in the Post Office.  It stood for, almost made present, the Emperor’s person.  It made clear that Rome ruled in that city or town and ruled by virtue of the person of the Emperor.  It was his image and that image made his authority real and personal.

Domitian was the Emperor who reigned during the time we think St. John was writing his gospel.  He was a ruthless man, a tyrant, much hated and finally assassinated. After his death the Senate imposed damnatio memoriae, which is to say, all memory of him was officially expunged.  His brutality may well have been provocation for the writing of another book by another John, the Apocalypse, the Revelation.

Domitian had as high an opinion of himself as others had a low one, and on the statues and busts made of him and erected throughout the Empire, he added this phrase: “Dominus et Deus Noster.”  Our Lord and our God.  And so, you see, Thomas’ exclamation, when confronted by the risen Jesus, is getting at more than one thing.  Thomas is indeed confessing Jesus as Lord and God, but in so confessing his master, as John presents it, he proclaims what is a clear and unmistakable contradiction of the imperial pretensions.  By extension, Thomas gives voice to a clear and unmistakable contradiction of any worldly political pretensions.  Thomas’ confession, as John records it, is a political as well as a religious statement.

Jesus is Lord and God.  Worldly rulers are dead and will die.  The best of them as well as the worst of them.  Worldly empires, nations, politics are over and forgotten or will come to an end and will be over and forgotten.  The best of them as well as the worst of them.  Only the risen Jesus and his Kingdom will endure, for only Jesus has overcome death, the final and ultimate enemy.  Only Jesus has defeated all the worldly and supernatural powers that were set against him to destroy him and would destroy us as well.  Only Jesus is ultimately victorious and only Jesus will endure and reign forever.

Christ is risen, good people.  Alleluia!

Let us all, let the whole Church join with Thomas: My Lord and my God!

Amen.