Second Sunday of Easter April 23, 2017
Scripture reading: John 20: 19-31
Sermon: “Getting the Last Word”
When Anwar Sadat came to power in Egypt in the early 70’s, his first move was to solidify all the power and support that he could. In his mind, this could best be accomplished by being as tough and as decisive as he possibly could be – and by building strong Muslim support for his office. In doing this, Sadat emboldened some fringe groups into attacking and harassing the minority Coptic Christians. The Coptics were always looked down upon by many in Egypt, but they were also beloved and protected by others. For most of their 2000-year existence, the Coptics and the Muslims in Egypt lived side by side in peace with little trouble. But as the turbulent times began in Egypt and throughout the Middle East in the 1960’s, the Coptics found themselves growing increasingly nervous about their situation. In treating the Coptics with indifference and by appearing to turn a blind eye to their oppression, President Sadat was doing what many of his Arab neighbors were also doing at the same time – treating the Christians in their countries with disdain as they built support for their leadership among the more extreme Muslims.
However, at the same time in Egypt as all this was happening, another man appeared on the scene. In 1971, a man was chosen to be the new pope of the Egyptian Coptic Christian Church: Pope Shenouda III. Shenouda was a force to be reckoned with, and he refused to keep quiet or to support Anwar Sadat’s poor treatment of his followers. Curiously enough, Shenouda was also hard on the other players in the Middle East. He openly and publicly criticized the peace plan that Sadat, the Prime Minister of Israel, and President Jimmy Carter put together in 1978;
Shenouda refused to endorse it because it failed to solve the problem of the Palestinians, whom he called his “brothers.” Shenouda also saw Sadat as becoming more dictatorial in his rule since his international acclaim following the 1978 peace deal with Israel. Shenouda preached and preached and preached against Sadat’s rule, his laws, and his continuing poor treatment of the Coptic Christians in Egypt. Finally, Sadat had enough. He officially deposed Shenouda from office and had him placed under house arrest in a desert monastery for three years. Before he entered the monastery, Shenouda publicly thanked Sadat for giving him uninterrupted time to study Scripture all day long. When Shenouda was released from the house arrest three years later, he picked up where he left off: criticizing the government for their poor treatment of the Coptics, its persecution of Christianity, and the Middle East peace plan with Israel that failed to solve the Palestinian problem.
Anwar Sadat thought he had gotten the final word. He was wrong!
When any of us enter into a disagreement – or even an argument with someone – it is human nature to want the other person to listen to our views and to give in. If we can’t achieve that, we would like to at least be heard. And if in that discussion, we can get the last word, that can be considered the cherry on the top. Getting the last word might not mean you won the disagreement or the argument, but somehow it makes you feel better to know that you finished with your pride, your dignity, and your opinion out there for all to view.
In my experience, this only happens on television shows…
Now…into this discussion of getting the last word, we now turn to the Apostle Thomas. For the past 2000 years, this poor man has had the unfortunate label of “Doubting Thomas.” What a terrible mistake he made in not believing that Jesus had risen from the dead! But then he doubled-down on that error by announcing that he wasn’t going to believe until he could put his fingers in the nail holes in Jesus’ hands and his hand in Jesus’ side. That probably quieted the other Apostles…it certainly gives us the impression that Thomas got the last word in THAT discussion!
Yet we all know what happened next; Jesus appeared a second time, just like before. He again said, “Peace be with you.” Then Jesus immediately addressed the elephant in the room; everyone knew that Thomas refused to believe, and now the “We-told-you-so-Thomas” moment has arrived. Poor Thomas had NO doubt now. His master, his rabbi, his Lord and his Messiah was standing right in front of him. Thomas finally saw what the others had already seen and believed: Jesus had risen from the dead. Jesus gently but firmly got the REAL last word when he reminded Thomas that “blessed are those who have not yet seen and yet have come to believe.”
The last word from our Lord and Christ…
But is that REALLY the last word?
If you check your Bibles very VERY carefully, there are only a handful of times that Thomas is even mentioned:
- during the listing of the 12 Apostles;
- when Jesus headed to Jerusalem and the other Apostles tried to talk him out of it, and Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him;”
- When the other Apostles told Thomas that Jesus had returned to them and he refused to believe it;
- When Jesus returned the second time…and got the last word.
This last scene may have been Jesus’ last word on this subject with Thomas, but it was NOT the last word from Thomas. If you research church tradition, Thomas was rumored to have gone to India to preach the Gospel there. Today, Christians, Muslims, and even Hindus in India revere Thomas for bringing the message of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and love to the people there. And after he had worked there for many years, Thomas reportedly was martyred for his faith – as were all the Apostles except for John. In living the rest of his life as a witness to his living, resurrected Lord Jesus, perhaps Thomas gave a new meaning to getting the last word.
Yes, he doubted.
Yes, he thought he got the last word on the subject of Jesus and his resurrection.
Yes, Thomas was somewhat gently confronted by Jesus with the embarrassing truth – Jesus was indeed alive.
But perhaps Thomas gets the last word when it comes to doubt. We easily label him “Doubting Thomas” as a lesson to each other: “Don’t doubt the power of Jesus and the resurrection.”
Yet…the uncomfortable truth is we doubt just like Thomas.
We often pray to the Lord, and we are deliberately vague about our prayer. Do we do this so that no matter how it works out we won’t be disappointed? Or do we fully trust our loving Lord?
Do we trust his loving heart to grant the prayers that will give us what we really need…and what is really the best for us?
If we pray for a million dollars, that doesn’t mean the Lord doesn’t exist if we don’t get it.
If we pray to get well or for our beloved one to get well – and it doesn’t happen – it’s hard not to doubt the Lord. Yet…it might mean there is something greater going on that we can’t see.
But we doubt…when fire or flood sweeps through a home and the entire family – including the children – die.
We doubt when North Korea moves closer and closer to developing the type of nuclear weapon that could bring the entire world into the next World War.
We doubt when the family member or the dear old friend turns away despite our best efforts, and our hearts break.
We doubt when we struggle and struggle and overcome every obstacle to build our new church – and it takes four long years before we can even have room to dream again, and we raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and pledges – only to face the same negative comments now that we heard back when we were on the former property on Highway 6.
We doubt. If nicknames were fairly distributed, each and every one of us would have the title “Doubting” in front of our names.
Perhaps it is time to be confident and obedient. Perhaps it is time to admit our doubt – own it! – but work to overcome it instead of setting up barriers that others must overcome before we will believe.
Perhaps it’s time to be just like Doubting Thomas and look Jesus in the eye and say nothing more than, “My Lord and my God!”