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Paddy O’Sulluivan was in New York . He was patiently waiting and watching the traffic cop on a busy street crossing. The cop stopped the flow of traffic and shouted, ‘Okay, pedestrians.’ Then he’d allow the traffic to pass. He’d done this several times, and Paddy still stood on the sidewalk. After the cop had shouted, ‘Pedestrians!’ for the tenth time, Paddy went over to him and said, ‘Is it not about time ye let the Catholics across?’
I tell you that one, not because it has anything to do with the sermon, but because of our current circumstances. Many of our Protestant friends have been doing video and streaming their services for quite some time, but for most of us in the more catholic / liturgical traditions, this is all new ground. I’m delighted that you are watching and that you’ve enjoyed the services, but I do want to let you know that we are working at getting better. As parts of this service were recorded at different times, you’ll already notice that some parts – including the music – have a better sound quality and we’re looking at ways to get even better. If you have an idea, let us know.
On the first Sunday after Christmas (yes, Christmas), we always read the Prologue from John’s Gospel. On the first Sunday after Easter (today), we always read the passage from John about Jesus appearing to the disciples and the incident with the Apostle Thomas. It is these two passages that bookend the Gospel of John (some scholars believe that chapter 21 of John’s Gospel was added later, although this doesn’t not effect the the reliability of the message.) John, when writing his prologue, had this ending of his Gospel that we read in mind. The Prologue reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word was God, and what did Thomas say to Jesus in today’s Gospel? “My Lord and my God!” In John’s Gospel, Thomas’ declaration, “My Lord and my God” is the first time anyone refers to Jesus as God. John takes us from God and the Word, Jesus, who were in the beginning before time began, and he takes us all the way through to this Jesus who was prophesied about by the prophets, born in a manger, lived, proclaimed, died, and rose from the dead, and in doing so he is proving to us that this Jesus is in fact God… the God who was in the beginning. And it is this God who is standing before Thomas and the others. But he is also showing the Apostles, and thus us, that this Jesus they knew prior to his crucifixion is different, for he is no longer constrained to the same physical limitations that we are and that he was.
We see this in two passages in today’s Gospel: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them.” And then, “A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them.” The resurrected Jesus is making these appearances as though “out of thin air.” That may sound a bit strange to us, but let me ask you this, is it any more strange than turning water into wine, feeding 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, or walking on the water? No. These appearances of Jesus are more signs of his divinity, and the signs point to the fact that through Jesus, the Kingdom of God – Heaven – has come very near to us.
Now, bear with me a minute and don’t go thinking I’ve gone and slid off the cracker. Throughout the Old and New Testament, there are many references to when God is very near to His people. Consider Jacob who had a dream about the angels ascending and descending on a ladder. Scripture says, “Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.’” He believed that the place where he slept was much more near to the Kingdom of God than other places. Then there was Moses. He sees the burning bush and goes up the mountain and the Lord says to him, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” The ground is holy, because of its nearness to God. And remember Elijah. He was afraid and ran to the wilderness where he hid in a cave. God said to Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And then there was a great wind that tore the mountains, but God was not in the wind, then an earthquake and a fire, but God was not in them either, but “after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” God was very near and spoke to him in the whisper.
Way back in the 5th century, Celtic Christianity/spirituality began to arise in Ireland and Scotland, and within their practices and understanding, the places where Jacob, Moses, Elijah and others had these experiences of God would be called “thin places.” Locales where Heaven, God is much more near to this world and his people than he is in other places. These are places where heaven and earth seem to mingle and share the same space. I tell you this because I think it is one of the best ways of understanding how Jesus could have appeared to his apostles as though “out of thin air.” For a brief time, Heaven and Earth came together, mingled in that place where Thomas and the other Apostles were gathered and Jesus appeared. It is dramatically different from the appearances in the Old Testament, because God did not simply appear in a dream, or a burning bush, or even a whisper. Instead, with Jesus, God appeared in the flesh, but it is still a time when Heaven and Earth came together. Now, within Celtic spirituality, these types of places, these thin places don’t only exist in Biblical times. They believe that these places, where Heaven and Earth meet, can exist anywhere or at anytime.
That was something that the Desert Fathers and Mothers, those who went out in the deserts of northern Egypt in the third century, understood. Although they didn’t call it a thin place, they did understand the desert to be such place. Italian author Alessandro Pronzato said, “The desert is the threshold to the meeting ground of God and man.” Elizabeth Hamilton, who wrote a biography on Charles de Foucauld, one of the great desert fathers, said it in a similar way: “The desert is a place where the soul encounters God.” The desert then, for them, can be understood as a thin place, but Hamilton went onto add, “The desert… can be anywhere.” And that is what is most important for you and I to understand, especially while we are separated like this. The desert can be anywhere. The thin place can be anywhere. The place where Heaven and Earth come together can be anywhere. It is the mountain where Moses encountered God. Behind locked doors where Thomas and the Apostles encountered Jesus. In this building (Oh, I do certainly believe this is one of those places), where we so often come to worship. But it doesn’t end there, because these places can also be in your home, where you are sitting at this very moment.
It is very difficult not to be with one another and worship together in this thin place, but I tell you: if you seek him, wherever you are, you will encounter him. And just as Thomas reached out his hand and touched God, you too can reach out the hands of your soul and do the same. Whether here or wherever you are. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come back here when we all can, but it does mean that He is with you and that you, where you are at this very moment are near to the Kingdom of God, to Heaven, and God himself.
Let us pray: Jesus, our Lord, save us from our sins. Come, protect us from all dangers and lead us to salvation. Come, Lord Jesus, do not delay; give new courage to Your people who trust in Your love. By Your coming, raise us to the joy of Your Kingdom, where you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever. Amen.