Doughty Thomas and the Braids of Miriam.
A sermon preached on the second Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018, by Rev. Dr. Jennifer M. Reece, priest in charge, Episcopal Parish of the Good Shepherd, Rangeley, Maine
Texts: Psalm 133, John 20, 19-31.
Although I don’t print them in the bulletin, I give most of my sermons a title. This one is called “Doughty Thomas and the Braids of Miriam.”
And now I have to explain that title. The Gospel that is always read on this Sunday, the 2nd Sunday of the Easter season, is John’s account of one of the appearances– or rather two of the appearances– of Jesus to his disciples after his Resurrection. First Jesus comes to his friends when they are locked in terror in an inner room, keeping a very low profile, knowing that both the religious authorities and the roman soldiers are hunting for them. As the followers of Jesus, a convicted and executed traitor and insurrectionist, they are liable to be arrested, tortured, and killed too. They are terrified. They have heard the stories of the women who found the tomb empty– they have seen that empty cave themselves– they have heard the women claiming to have met the Master, have heard his message to go to Galilee, to continue his work there, to meet him there, to take up a new life with him. But they are paralyzed with fear.
So Jesus comes to them anyway, right through the locked doors. And to their fears and terrors he brings his word: “Peace. Do not be afraid. Here I am, it is true. I died, and now I am dead no longer but alive with a new life, a new life you can share.” They are overwhelmed. But one of them is not there. Thomas. And when he finally gets home to them, he is astonished and distraught at their story. He can’t believe it, no more than they could believe the women. He says he has to see, and touch, and feel Jesus before he can believe. For this skepticism he has gone down in history as “Doubting Thomas.” Preachers have used him, year after year, as an example of people such as we are surrounded with today, people who need proof before they will believe, people for whom logic and common sense and fact and having your feet on the ground is more important than believing in some transcendent and possibly superstitious story. And in this gospel we hear this very Doubting Thomas is the one who, of all the disciples, comes to see who Jesus really is, and has been all along: the one who gives the faithful proclamation, “My Lord, and my God!” This disciple, called “Doubting Thomas,” I call instead “Doughty Thomas”.
Doughty Thomas. Doughty is a good old fashioned Scottish word. It means brave and strong. “steadfastly courageous . . . valiant.” What? You say, this skeptic who needs to plunge his hands right into the wounds of Jesus before he will believe the promise has come true, that he who has died will rise again? He cannot acclaim that he is risen until he has proved it? How is this brave? Hold that thought. I will get back to it.
The second part of the sermon title sermon is “the Braids of Miriam”. Now what the heck is that about? We haven’t come across Miriam at all in any of today’s readings, have we? Miriam, you remember, of course, is the sister of Moses. She with her brother Aaron and their brother Moses worked together as leaders in the great Exodus out of Egypt, the liberation of the people from slavery, the great Passover liberation that foreshadows the even greater liberation God gave in his Son Jesus who liberates us all from the slavery to death and sin.
We have not read about Miriam this morning, about how she led the women in the dance of victory following the liberation, how she led the people in worship, fulfilling the role of a priest long before the culture would allow women to take on that role institutionally. But we have read about Aaron. It was in the Psalm. That wonderful Psalm about being brothers and sisters in community. “How precious it is when brothers and sisters live in harmony. It is like oil running over the head of Aaron and down his beard. “
Now what the heck does that mean? It’s a startling image, isn’t it. A great bushy bearded man with oil dripping from his forehead down his beard? The image is one of anointing. Anointing is the symbolic gesture of pouring oil, or placing oil on the head of a priest or king as part of the ceremony of ordination, of setting them apart for a special role in the community. Even today it is the central ceremony of the crowning of a British monarch. It is such a sacred act that when Elizabeth II was crowned, and the coronation televised, this part was done discreetly behind a tent-like curtain they set up around her. It was a moment too holy for the cameras: it was an anointing.
There are a few people in this congregation who are acquainted with anointing, as I do it on many of the Wednesdays when we meet for a healing service. I don’t pour the oil over their heads so that it drips down over their collars, (although I am sometimes tempted to do so!) but I do mark the sign of the cross in oil specially blessed by the bishop, oil that is also used in baptism.
You know the title for Jesus, the Hebrew word Messiah, whose Greek translation is Christos, or as we say, the Christ. But do you know what it means? It means “the anointed one.” God has anointed Jesus to be the savior of the world, he is the Christ of God, the anointed one of God. Aaron was anointed by Moses to be a priest, with oil dripping down his beard. I and my women friends in seminary expanded that to imagine God anointing women like the sister of Aaron and Moses as priests too, with the same oil running down the braids of Miriam. This expansion of the Old Testament psalm is entirely in keeping with the life, the teaching, and the saving grace of Jesus, in whom all his followers, men and women alike, find their priesthood. How precious is the community of men and women serving and loving God together, it is like the dew on Mount Hermon, the dew of the returning spring, the rising of the sap the renewal of life, yes, of everlasting life.
This is the meaning of anointing. The sacred rite that sets some apart actually binds all the people together in the same priesthood. The baptism into the death of the anointed one, the Christ, is a baptism also into his new life. And that new life is a new community. Just how new, and unexpected, and radical it was is described in Acts. Instead of rich and poor, slave and free, citizen and foreigner, they are all one in the risen life of Christ. Instead of huddling behind closed doors they have become Doughty like Thomas, brave, bold and courageous, living the new life out there in Galilee, in their ordinary communities, their ordinary lives now made extraordinary by the risen body of the Lord.
So, let’s review why I am calling “doubting Thomas” or skeptical, dubious Thomas instead by this new name of “doughty Thomas,” brave Thomas, valiant Thomas.
Well, he stuck around didn’t he? When everyone else was chattering about the resurrection, he was brave enough to stand against them all and express his doubts. He was courageous enough not to run away but to stay there with them, despite his skepticism. He was filled with doubts and yet he waited around a whole week, in the midst of his unbelief, not crediting his friends’ reports of seeing Jesus risen, but waiting to see Jesus himself. He was full of doubt, and he didn’t trust his friends. But he trusted Jesus.
If we look for Thomas in other places in the gospels we discover that of all the disciples, he is the one who trusts Jesus. He doesn’t dispute with Jesus when told the Messiah must suffer and die, as Peter does. He doesn’t wrangle about who is going to be sitting in the seat of honor when Jesus reigns, as James and John do. But when the beloved friend of Jesus, Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus dies, and the other disciples tell Jesus that going to Bethany is too dangerous, it is Thomas who says ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ Brave Thomas. Doughty Thomas. Of all the disciples, it seems, he gets it. To be Jesus is to turn your face unerringly to the cross. To be a follower of Jesus, is to go with him to that place of brokenness and wounds and death. To trust him even to death.
And have you ever asked yourself why Thomas is not in the room with the others, when Jesus comes bursting through the locked door? The other disciples are hunkered down, hiding, terrified of exposing themselves to the dangers of the outside world where both the Roman Empire and the religious authorities are hell-bent on suppressing them and their upsetting, rabble rousing, Jesus movement. They don’t dare go outside. They have locked their doors. Only Thomas is brave enough to get out there beyond the sanctuary of their building into the street. He hasn’t gone out just to buy bagels. He’s out there because that’s where Jesus did his ministry, out there with the blind beggars and the tax collectors and the fallen women, not safe in their little community of like-minded pious armchair revolutionaries. Alone of them all, Thomas is out there in the place of danger and confusion. Brave Thomas, Doughty Thomas.
And so he misses Jesus’ first appearance, startling the disciples with his sudden presence and saying Peace. It’s incredible, of course Thomas shouldn’t believe them. Nothing good ever came of being gullible after all. Why should he believe them? They have always been wrong. It must be wishful thinking. He wants to put his fingers in the wounds. And so he does.
One of the many interesting things about the resurrected body of Jesus is this: it has holes in it. You’d think in the resurrection the human body would be made perfect, whole, renewed in all ways. But Jesus comes to us with all his wounds still visible, still open. It’s as if the empty space of the tomb we were left with last week returns this week in the empty places in the resurrected body of Jesus. A place that invites us in, invites us not to cower in a corner but to face pain, to face death, to walk into the open place and find the new life that waits for us. If we dare.
So, thanks be to God for sending Doughty Thomas to remind us that we can be doubters and darers as we follow Jesus to the cross, to the tomb, and to a new life, wounds and all. And thanks be to God for anointing us in our baptism into this new life in Christ, so that the oil runs down over our beards and braids, over our collars, men and women together, into life forevermore.