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Outside Looking In
THE SHARED EXPERIENCEHave you ever been a part of a tight group of friends?
You did everything together? There was not a basketball game, party or holiday that you were not together. You were so close, and spent so much time together, that you knew their favorite music group, their favorite place for taking a vacation, you knew everything that they were thinking and planning on doing. But then one day the group did something when you were not with them. It was a really unusual activity. They didn't plan it. They were not consciously trying to exclude you.
It happened by chance. Yet, the experience was so incredible that it
had a marked impact upon the group. Every person felt different after the
experience. But you were on the outside looking in. No matter what you
did or said or tired to be, whenever that experience came up in the group's
conversation you were the outsider. If that ever happened to you, you may
appreciate Thomas' struggle of faith.
THOMAS, THE OUTSIDERWhen Jesus appeared to the disciples in a group, Thomas was not around. No one knows for certain where he was or what he was doing. I believe that Thomas had isolated himself from the other disciples. He probably wanted to be by himself after the crucifixion of Jesus. Why do I believe that? Because of who Thomas was.
Thomas was a radical in that inner circle. When Jesus went to visit the ailing Lazarus, Thomas convinced the others to go with Jesus so that they could all die together. Thomas sensed the urgency of the hour. He knew that the Jewish authorities would tolerate Jesus for only so long and then one day they would put an end to the Teacher from Nazareth and his disciples.
Thomas thought that the day had come when Jesus went to visit Lazarus, so he said to the others, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."
But then the day came when the religious leaders arrested Jesus, but where was Thomas? The Great Defender of the Faith run, just like everyone else. He did not stand to fight. He did not defend his honor. He showed no valor or courage. Fear gripped the radical disciple and he fled for his life. For a man who courageously treated death so lightly his own cowardliness must have been very difficult to bear.
Thomas lost more than a friend that night. He lost his honor and his self-respect. He could not face the others and it was easier for him to be alone. Unlike Peter, Thomas was not one of the group's leaders. Whereas everyone sought out Peter, the other nine disciples may not have been sought out Thomas. They may not have searched for him with the same intensity. Unlike James and Andrew who had brothers in the group, Thomas did not have any family who followed Jesus. Unlike Peter and John who were fished together, Thomas did not have any former business partners. So on the day Jesus first appeared to the whole group Thomas was not there. While the Ten experienced the wonderful presence of their Lord, Thomas only knew the empty feeling of his loneliness.
I wonder if Thomas' doubts had as much to do with his feelings of detachment
from the group, as it his skepticism. I raise this possibility not to minimize
Thomas questioning but to highlight the importance of the group experience.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE GATHERED COMMUNITYA group experience is important for several reasons. First, when you consider the accounts the Risen Christ is revealed to the gathered community more often than to individuals. I would take that one step further and say that the Risen Christ and the Spirit of Christ is seldom if ever manifested to an individual in the same way as they are to the gathered community. People may say that they feel more in touch with the spiritual alone on a mountain but God most often reveals himself in the fellowship of believers.
During college, we often used the analogy of a log burning in fire. As long as the logs lie close to one another the fire burns brightly, but when one is removed, the flame will only burn for a brief time and then it will go out. So, it is with the flame of faith. It burns most intensely when believers gather together and focus their whole being, body, mind and spirit in their worship of God. Thomas may have wanted to believe but alone, without the support and encouragement of others the flame of hope was extinguished.
Another reason it is important for us to develop methods of welcoming
people into our fellowship is for our growth as a church. Believe it or
not, we are the size that is most difficult for new people to feel accepted.
It is easier for a church of 1000 members to make a new person feel welcomed.
A church with less than 200 adults on Sunday morning becomes almost like
a big family, but unless you marry in, a new member feels like a visitor
for a very long time.
TELLING AND RETELLING THE STORYSo, lets look at what the Ten did to make Thomas feel apart of the group.
First, they told him about what happened.
The NIV performs a slight disservice in their translation of this passage. It translates the verb elegou "told," a completed action in the past. However, the Greek word is in the imperfect tense and implies repeated action. Another translation of the word could be "was telling." It means the action happened more than once. The disciples did not tell Thomas once but several times. They told him and told him and told him and told him.
Buoyed by the excitement of seeing Jesus, touching his hands and side and hearing his voice the disciples went and told the person who was absent.
The songwriter Larry Norman expressed the enthusiasm for the early community when he wrote in a song "Sing that Sweet, Sweet Song of Salvation"
When you know a pretty storyThe disciples were not afraid to tell Thomas what they had seen. Their experience was unique. Thomas had not been apart of it so they told him and retold him what happened. Thomas did not believe them so they kept telling him.
FORGETTING THE PASTSecondly, they laid aside the issues of the past. This did not mean that they forgot about them or never discussed them. The disciples just did not let those issues interfere with restoring their relationship with Thomas. Every disciple knew they had behaved badly. No one could defend their actions. Now was not the time to point fingers or cast blame. Now was the time to restore and regroup.
Too often, we separate ourselves from people with whom we disagree. The person feels hurt and reacts then by rejecting any ideas or comments we suggest. A wall or barrier is erected. Churches have split over theological differences that could have been avoided if the member would have simple stayed in dialogue with one another. Our witness to the world is badly tarnished by our own inability to resolve our differences. It is not unusual that Christians fight. Believers have been squabbling about things since the first century, but the tragedy is our reluctance to work toward reconciliation. In contrast, the disciples did not give up. They would not allow Thomas to remain isolated from the group and alone in his doubt and despair. They brought him back into fellowship so that he might also witness the Risen Christ.
We live in a world of doubting Thomas. People have become desensitized to the spiritual world by the world of technology. Unless they see for themselves, unless they have an authentic experience for themselves, they will not believe. There are also people who do not believe because they have never felt include by the group. They have always felt like an outsider looking in. It becomes our responsible to seek out these doubting Thomases so that they too might experience the Risen Christ.
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