The months-long suspension of in-person worship required in response to the coronavirus pandemic continues to be a disorienting experience for church-folk throughout the world. Added to the need for physical distancing in nearly every aspect of daily life, some experience the interruption of regular religious assembly and fellowship as a painful loss. Though alleviated to some degree by the use of technological capabilities for online gathering, the inability to partake of the sacraments is a profound grief for many. In the disruption of accustomed, habitual practices, the temptation to turn inward in despair and inertia is great.
But now our world languishes and groans in the midst of disease and death and the exposure of long-standing hatred, prejudices, injustices and inequities, all the result of human sin. Christians must relinquish self-concern and fear and give themselves, individually and corporately, to steadfast witness of our Creator’s goodness and love.
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul points us to our baptismal death to sin as the source of new and abundant life in Christ, both for ourselves and for the world which Jesus came to save. “You also must consider yourselves dead to dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” [Romans 6:11]
By our union with Christ in the baptismal mystery of his dying and rising we find our unity and meaning in life as his disciples. The Baptismal Covenant which we profess together in the Apostles’ Creed points to the present and eternal reality of our oneness with God, with one another, and with the whole Creation. Our re-birth in Holy Baptism through water and the anointing Spirit has marked us “as Christ’s own for ever”, a new creation reflecting the glory of God in our very being. Through three renunciations of evil and sin, and through three pledges to “turn” to the obedience of our Lord and Savior’s grace and love, we have been given power to be God’s children and messengers of the Good News of God in Christ now.
It’s the miracle which is perhaps the most famous of them all: the feeding of the 5,000. It’s found in all four Gospels. But we don’t always notice that in Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, there is another miracle, which is very similar: the miracle of the feeding of the FOUR thousand. And that is our Gospel for today.
There is so much in this story, but as I read it again, slowly, two things in particular spoke to me.
First, I was struck again by Jesus’ wonderful compassion. “My heart is moved with pity,” one translation puts it, “because they are hungry.” We often remember all the spiritual things Jesus says in the Gospels, but we don’t always notice how he is not just interested in our spiritual selves, but our physical needs as well. They’re hungry; help them. Remember how after Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter, he says, “give her something to eat.” When the disciples return from mission, Jesus can see they are exhausted and says, “Come away by yourselves and rest.”
We are now two weeks into a season of the church called Epiphany. Having grown up in a different Christian tradition, I admit that the meaning of this period of the church year alluded me for quite some time. When I first came to the Episcopal Church, I had never heard of Epiphany. Like being a postulant and novice in a monastery, becoming acclimated to the richness of a new tradition can take some time. We learn by entering into the life slowly, absorbing little by little all that tradition has to teach us. There usually comes a moment when the nature and purpose of a particular practice will become apparent and make us exclaim: “Eureka! I got it!” While an epiphany seems like a sudden and random event, the truth is epiphanies happen after a significant period of time when a final tidbit of information gathered brings something into focus. While the ‘Eureka effect,’ (the sudden elation one experiences when having an epiphany) makes this event appear to be random, in actuality it is the end of a long process. Epiphany (from the Greek) literally means manifestation.
A friend of mine recently e-mailed me a maxim which read, ‘Work tip: Stand up. Stretch. Take a walk. Go to the airport. Get on an airplane. Never return.’ I sometimes wonder if this is what Jesus and his disciples felt like in their own ministry. When you read the gospel of Mark, one thing you will notice straight away is the fevered pace with which Jesus and his disciples move in their ministry. After Jesus is baptized, Mark writes that the Spirit immediately drives Jesus into the desert to be tempted by Satan. He then begins his ministry, chooses his disciples, heals a man with an unclean spirit, heals Simon’s mother-in-law and then others who catch wind of Jesus power. He then begins a preaching tour through Galilee and cleanses a leper he encounters along the way. And this is just the first chapter and in as little as 870 words!
We’re now in chapter six and we read that Jesus’ disciples have been out on their own preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons. They have met up with Jesus again and you can sense their child-like excitement as they begin to recount how they had put to use all that He had been teaching them. With all this commotion around them they had not even had time to attend to their own needs of sustenance and rest. We then hear Jesus tell them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” The sigh of relief is palpable as we read that they got in a boat and set sail for the other side. Can you identity with Jesus and the disciples? Have you ever had one of those days or even weeks that just doesn’t seem to stop?
Today, we celebrate the feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle, most famously known as “Doubting Thomas,” from the Gospel story we just heard. Thomas misses the initial appearance of the Resurrected Christ, and insists that he will not believe unless he can stick his fingers inside the wounds of Christ himself. Jesus later arrives, and after offering his disciples a greeting of “Peace be with you,” he does again what he has already done to an infinite degree: Jesus offers his body, for the dispelling of the shadows of doubt and the triumph of life through the light of faith. He orders Thomas to stick his fingers in the wounds of his body. Thomas immediately realizes his error, and exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”1 Fear, repentance, shock, jubilation, hope, excitement, awe, love…all of these and more, bound up in Thomas’s beautiful cry, and the experience takes Thomas from doubt to a belief deep enough to explicitly affirm that Christ is God Incarnate.