Sermon
April 3, 2005
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Gospel Reading John 20:19-31

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 authorities, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." 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 and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

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Sermon: Do you know the Secret Sign?

Were you every a sailor? That phrase, accompanied by the secret sign and the proper response was the way members of my college fraternity, Delta Sigma Phi, or as more affectionately known Delta Pigma Sty, could communicate their membership in the mysterious bond of the Sphinx. Then, I suppose, you were free to drink beer with one another and share stories of initiation rites and other carefully guarded secrets of Greek life.

For some reason, in the 38 years since I graduated from Rutgers, this moment right now is the first time I've actually had occasion to make use of such esoteric information.

Early Christians, as you might know, also had a secret sign, but for them, under threat of Roman persecution, it was a much more serious matter. Their sign was the sign of the fish - something you still see today on the back of automobiles as they pass you on the right in a spirit of Christian love.


The sign of the fish might be something a traveler would trace in the dirt with the toe of his sandal when looking for a room for the night. If the innkeeper did know recognize the meaning of the sign it could easily be brushed away as if it was just a form of nervous doodling. But if the fish was recognized in it's secret meaning, then the traveler could be directed to a local house church where they would be welcomed, invited to break bread, and questioned about the condition of the Christian community in the neighboring towns and engaged in conversation about the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

In fact, the use of the fish was in part because the letters of the word, in Greek, were an acronym for just that majestic title: ??????
? ??s??? Jesus
? ???st?? Christ
? ?e?? God's
? ???? Son
? s?t?? Savior

When you add that to the other symbolic roles of fish, fishing, and fishermen in the stories of the Gospel, you can understand why these simply lines became an important sign for the early church.

But the church also struggled with the notion of secret signs, secret rites, and secret knowledge. It was born into a world that was full of cults that thrived on such mysterious elements, cults with elaborate initiation rites and long periods of instruction, cults with their own special gods and oracles, cults that created exclusive clubs with certain social status in the society and a sense of personal significance and privilege for those who belonged.

Now, this is not my field of expertise, but in my education we lumped together many of these influences in the life of the early church under one heading - Gnosticism.

???^s?? is the Greek word for knowledge, and the Gnostics were looking for the secret knowledge that Jesus imparted. I know I'm going to shortchange this important element of early Christian thinking, but for the purposes of this sermon, let me just point out one big difference between the Gnostic Christians and the viewpoint that came to be called Orthodox and which eventually suppressed Gnostic teaching.

In 1945 the remains of an extraordinary Gnostic library of early Christian material was found in a ruined tomb near Nag Hamadi in Upper Egypt. 13 leather bound papyrus volumes were found containing 49 works, among them this book, the Gospel According to Thomas.

Now let's think back for a moment to our Gospel lesson this morning:
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." 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 and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"

That's the Thomas we know, the one who recognizes Jesus not by some secret sign but by the very public marks of his execution, by the wounded hands and feet and side.

But the Gospel of Thomas, which the Gnostics kept, does not even mention the crucifixion. There is no betrayal, no arrest, no false accusations, trial by night, condemnation, execution, burial and resurrection. That story does not hold interest for the Gnostics - for this is a book only of teachings, of secret knowledge that leads to life.

The Gospel of Thomas
Translated by Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer
http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/gosthom.html
These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.
1. And he said, "Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death."
2. Jesus said, "Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all. [And after they have reigned they will rest.]"
3. Jesus said, "If your leaders say to you, 'Look, the (Father's) kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father's) kingdom is within you and it is outside you.


In the end, this version of Christianity, the version of secret knowledge and secret societies and secret signs, was rejected in favor of a Christianity whose signs were the most public of public events, a savior nailed to a cross on a hill outside the city walls of David's Holy City, Jerusalem.

The marks of the Christ were not so much his teaching as his suffering - the marks of the five wounds that the world inflicted on its savior, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. These remain today not a secret sign but an authentic sign of the church and her members - not the glory of grand buildings, not the roar of great crowds, but the wounds of those who in a spirit of love bear the suffering of this world and in a spirit of mercy serve others in Christ's name.

Today as we gather around this table, let us remember not only the meal the disciples shared with the Lord in the Upper Room, but also that is the gateway to the great story of his passion, death, and resurrection. This meal embodies all that he wished to impart to the men and women who followed him and who follow him now - the giving of self, the serving of others, the fellowship of faith sustained by God's gift of love in the person of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

Gathered as a community of faith around this table, let us remember the promise of our Lord:Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. This is the Lord's table and Christ invites you to share this meal of grace.

We celebrate an open communion. This sacrament is for all who wish to know the presence of Christ and to share in the community of God's people.

Christ recognizes you and looks upon you with favor. Christ befriends you and wants you within his circle. Count yourself among Christ's disciples by partaking in this feast of fellowship.

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