Unless I See

April 11th 2021 homily on John 20:19-31 by pastor Galen

A Raging Pandemic

The year was 165 A.D., and a devastating plague was sweeping across the Roman Empire. Some historians think that perhaps it was the first appearance of smallpox in the West, but whatever it was, it was deadly—as many contagious diseases are when they strike a previously unexposed population. During the15-year duration of the epidemic, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the population died from the disease. At the height of the epidemic, mortality was so great in many cities that the emperor Marcus Aurelius (who subsequently died from the disease) described caravans of carts and wagons hauling out the dead. 

The famous Greek doctor, surgeon, and philosopher Galen (who I’m named after), whose views dominated and influenced Western medical science for more than 1,300 years, fled the city of Rome during the pandemic and went to his countryside estate where he stayed until the danger subsided. For those who could not flee, the typical response was to try to avoid any contact with the afflicted, since it was understood that the disease was contagious. When even the first sign of symptoms appeared, victims were often thrown out into the streets and left to die, so that their friends and loved ones would not contract the deadly disease.

The Christians living in the Roman Empire, on the other hand, did not do this, choosing insteading to care for their loved ones and even for those who were not part of their Church community by providing them with food and water. In so doing, they were able to nurse many people back to health. Of course there were many Christians who did not survive the epidemic, but these died as faithful followers of Christ, loving and caring for their family, friends, and neighbors, treating others as they would have wanted to be treated, as Jesus taught us to do.

I’m grateful that in the current pandemic that we’re living through we have much more sophisticated means of treating COVID patients and tracking the spread of the coronavirus. But there have been many frontline workers and medical professionals who have risked their own safety in order to care for others. And many of you have cared for friends and loved ones who contracted the virus — following CDC guidelines to minimize the risk to yourself and others — thereby exemplifying Christlike love and compassion.

Faith Matters

But what was it that caused the famous Greek physician Galen to flee to his countryside estate rather than stay and assist the afflicted? And what was it that caused the Christians of his day to risk their own safety in order to serve the sick?

In his book The Triumph of Christianity, sociologist and historian Rodney Stark answers that question in this way: “Christians believed in life everlasting, [Whereas those who practiced the Roman religions] believed in an unattractive existence in the underworld. Thus, for Galen to have remained in Rome to treat the afflicted during the first great plague would have required far greater bravery than was needed by Christian deacons and presbyters to do so.” And he concludes by saying, “Faith mattered.”

The 2nd century Christians believed in life everlasting, just as we do today. They had faith and confidence that death was not the end, and that because Jesus rose from the grave on Easter morning, we too will one day be resurrected. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection we have hope and confidence that no matter what happens to us in this life, if we put our faith and trust in the Lord we will be with Christ for all eternity.

Faith mattered to those 2nd century Christians. Not in a way that denied the danger they were experiencing, but in a way that motivated them to serve others with care and compassion.

“Unless I See”

In the Gospel of John chapter 20, we find that the evening after Jesus rose from the grave his disciples were huddled together behind locked doors, for fear that the same people who put Jesus to death would come and arrest them for being followers of Jesus. The word “disciples” here probably refers not just to Jesus’s inner circle of disciples, but to the larger number of men and women who had followed Jesus and been sent out by him to heal and minister to the sick in Luke chapter 10.

Mary Magdalene had seen the risen Lord and had shared the good news of Christ’s resurrection with the other disciples. Peter and John had gone and seen the empty tomb for themselves, but they were all still scared and confused, wondering what had happened to his body? Had someone stolen it? And if Jesus had indeed risen as Mary said, where was he now?

All of a sudden, standing there in their midst, was Jesus! “He showed them his hands and his side,” John tells us, and “the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” Jesus spoke with them, and breathed on them the breath of the Holy Spirit.

But a week later, the disciples were again in the house with the doors closed. This time Thomas was with them. The other disciples had told Thomas that they had seen the risen Christ, but he was even more skeptical than they had been, saying, “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 20:25).

But then, standing there once again in their midst, was Jesus, saying “Peace be with you.” Jesus invited Thomas to come and see for himself, saying, “’Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’” Thomas answered him, “’My Lord and my God!’” (John 20:27-28). Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” (John 20:29a) And then Jesus uttered those words that refer to each and every one of us who have never seen the risen Lord in bodily form, and yet put put our faith and trust in Christ: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29b).

The Body of Christ in Action

Of course, it’s easier to believe that Christ is alive when we see the Church, referred to as the Body of Christ, living into the hope of the resurrection, proclaiming the Gospel through word and deed, as those 2nd century Christians did during the time of the plague in the Roman empire. 

And so it was because of the love and compassion of those 2nd century Christians that many people converted to Christianity. Even the Roman Emperor Julian, writing in the fourth century, took notice of the actions of Christ’s followers in his own day and age, although he himself did not convert. Emperor Julian actually lamented the progress of Christianity because it pulled people away from worshiping the Roman gods. Julian said that the Christian faith “has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead.” He went on to say it was a scandal that “there is not a single [Christian] who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans” (he called them that because they denied the existence of the Roman gods) “care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”

In other words, so many people were drawn to the Christian faith because of the love and compassion shown by the Christians that even the emperor of Rome took notice, and lamented the fact that Rome itself did not take such good care of those in need.

But what about…?

Of course there have been just as many times throughout the past two thousand years when Christians have failed to love and care for others. Many acts of violence and atrocities have been committed by those who claim the name of Christ. In my work with atheists and skeptics on college campuses, I’m frequently asked to account for the Crusades, or those Christians who owned slaves, or more recently the many Christians who stormed the capital on January 6th holding up signs declaring “Jesus saves.” Just a few weeks ago, a young man by the name of Robert Aaron Long – a church member, and the son of a youth pastor, shot and killed 8 people in Atlanta, 6 of whom were Asian women.

Is it any wonder that so many of our friends and family members have no interest in coming to church, or being associated in any way with those who claim the name of Christ but act in ways so antithetical to the Gospel message?

This is why we must denounce in the strongest of terms all acts of hatred, abuse, violence, and animosity directed towards others. We must proclaim that those who bear Christ’s name and yet commit such senseless acts of violence were not following in the footsteps of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who taught us to love and serve one another.

We recognize that the Church is an imperfect representation of Christ on this earth, and we acknowledge our own sinfulness and brokenness. And yet Christ has entrusted to us the message of the Gospel. We have been tasked with proclaiming the hope that we have because of Christ’s resurrection. We have been commissioned to point others toward the Christ who continually shows up in our midst, breaking even through doors that have been locked and shut. We’ve been instructed to help others see Christ’s hands and feet – the Body of Christ in action – scarred though we may be, so that they too can see and believe.

Signs of The Resurrection

The other day someone asked me why I still believe. Why do I have faith in Christ, even when there are so many reasons to doubt? Throughout this past year, even during this pandemic, and even in the midst of the increased chaos and polarization in our society, I have seen evidence that Jesus is alive and well and working in our midst.

  • I’ve seen members of our congregation caring for family members and neighbors, extending love even to strangers. I’ve seen us as a congregation search for and find new and creative ways to keep in touch with one another, even when we could not see each other in person. 
  • I saw our church provide free masks to people, even when stores had scarce supply.
  • I’ve seen us embrace the use of technology in our worship services, diversifying how we worship God together, and making it possible for us to join together with people around the city, the country, and even around the world. 
  • I’ve seen churches working together in new and renewed across denominations, coming together to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the community. Churches that didn’t have the capacity to livestream their services joined in with other congregations fpr worship. (Our own congregation has been blessed to have several members of the Woodberry Church of the Brethren joining us for worship during this past year!) And City Harbor Church, the congregation that typically meets for worship in our building at 9 am before our service, continued faithfully paying their rent month in and month out during this past year (despite the fact that they were not even using the building!) as a way to support our ongoing ministry efforts.
  • The interdenominational Christian fellowship of churches in our community continued our steadfast and faithful commitment to continue the community food pantry which we host here in our building, providing food and clothing to those in need, never closing our doors even once even in the midst of the height of the pandemic.
  • And I saw congregations in our community coming together to respond to the violence and racial injustice and disparity that has been revealed in our society over this past year. Back in June of 2020 myself and several other clergy in the community coordinated a neighborhood gathering for racial solidarity, in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Hundreds of neighbors, many of whom had not left their houses for weeks or even months due to the stay-at-home order, flooded the street and joined in a peaceful vigil on The Avenue, all properly masked and socially distanced, as the Gospel was proclaimed from the steps of the St. Luke’s Church On The Avenue. Community members listened with rapt attention as neighbors of various races and ethnicities shared their stories in support of one another.

Friends, I believe in the resurrection because I’ve seen the risen Christ. Not in the flesh, but I’ve seen his hands and feet, the Church, the Body of Christ at work in the world, coming out from behind locked doors to boldly witness to the faith and the hope that we have in Christ. We’re not perfect in any way, shape, or form. And yet Christ continues to reveal his life through us. May we continue to demonstrate through word and deed the crucified and risen Christ, to a world that is desperately longing to see and believe. 

Published by Galen Zook

I am an artist, preacher, minister, and aspiring theologian

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