This sermon was preached on Sunday April 23, 2017 at Knox. The text was John 20:19-31.
How ‘bout them Warriors? Do we have any Warriors fans in the house?
OK, before we get started, I need to confess that I basketball is not my sport. My sport in high school was track and now it’s taekwondo but I’m learning, and of course, now that we live in Santa Rosa, I’ve got to get to know the Warriors, am I right?
Well, speaking of basketball, did you know that the best teammates in the NBA are also the ones who physically touch each other the most ?
I’m talking high-fives, fist bumps, hugs, pats - these basketball players tend to do better than players who don’t?
A group of scientists out of Yale did a study about how teams touch each other. They watched games and noted behavior from 294 players from all 30 NBA teams in the first two months of the 2008-2009 season (so before Steph Curry joined the Warriors).
I’m guessing there’s a few of you that wish you had that job, to watch a lot of basketball?
The scientists were looking at intentional touch like high-fives, pats, fist bumps, head grabs, shoulder bumps (basically, not contact that comes from playing basketball). They especially looked at touch that happened when players were celebrating a great play.
If I have any old school NBA fans in the house - this is before the study - but think of Magic Johnson’s first pro game. Kareem hits the game winner and Magic won’t stop hugging him. If you watch the video on youtube, Magic’s just squeezing Kareem and his face is lit up with joy.
We’re talking this kind of touch, but also the more subtle affectionate pats and high fives that happen.
Anyway, what the scientists discovered is that good players aren’t afraid to touch their teammates, and good NBA teams tend to be touchier than bad ones.
I do want to point out that the scientists weren’t looking specifically at winning, but at how efficiently players and teams managed the ball, things like their ratio of assists to giveaways. Players who make contact with teammates most consistently and for the longest amounts of time tend to rate highest on measures of performance.
It’s not surprising because scientists who study touch have realized that touch connects people emotionally and promotes trust and cooperation. For instance, for most women, studies show the touch of a spouse reduces fear and feelings of threat in a scary situation. Touch also reduces pain and promotes healing. And it’s the most developed sense at birth.
So, touch is good, touchy NBA teams tend to be good. What does this have to do with our Scripture for today?
Well, let’s go back to our text from John. This is the account where Thomas gets his reputation for being “doubting” Thomas.
Remember from last week with Mary Magdalene, how we talked about that we’re not surprised by Easter any more? Well, we’re not really surprised by Jesus’ after Easter appearances any more, either. Imagine if Jesus showed up here and we all saw him, and then next week we tell everybody Jesus was here? What do you think they’d say?
So this is what’s going on: in the gospel account from John, the risen Jesus shows up in the locked room with the disciples. Jesus stands among them, and shows them his hands and his sides, and then he breathes the Holy Spirit on them.
But Thomas isn’t there to see Jesus’. He’s misses the big moment. So, when all the other disciples are excited about Jesus coming, Thomas says, “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.”
Thus, begins Thomas’ reputation as a doubter. But, in reading this account, I wonder...maybe Thomas isn’t so much doubting from a religious faith perspective, but feeling left out. How disappointing it must have been to miss seeing Jesus. Maybe he’s asking for confirmation that Jesus and the disciples didn’t mean to leave him out on purpose, that he’s still on the team.
To touch Jesus would be to confirm their relationship because touch is about relationship. It’s part of how humans build trust and cooperation.
Well, Jesus arrives a second time. And this time Thomas is there. Jesus invites him to put his finger on his hand and in his side, and Thomas recognizes Jesus and says, “My Lord and my God.”
Jesus, in returning, and offering his hands and sides to Thomas, confirms that they still have a bond. Thomas is indeed still on Team Jesus.
After this, though, Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
This phrase often gets read as a criticism of Thomas’ faith, but I don’t think that’s what’s really going on here. The word “blessed” here doesn’t mean, “way more special” or “God’s going to reward you extra for being awesome”. It means: happy or to be envied. And, there’s actually no punctuation in the Greek, so it’s not necessarily a question. Jesus may be saying to Thomas, “You believe because you see me, but those who believe but do not see me are still blessed (to know God’s grace).”
Unlike Thomas, this second time around, most everybody in the world is not in that locked room with Jesus and the other disciples. Most of the early church on down through the ages, is not there to put their hands in Jesus’ sides.
So, how do we feel secure in our relationship? How do we know we are on Team Jesus?
Let’s come back to the NBA. The best teams are the teams that touch, and they touch because they have relationships of trust with one another. The high-fives and hugs show outwardly how much the players inwardly trust and rely on each other. Touch shows they don’t fear each other, that they want to cooperate, connect, and celebrate together.
Jesus instituted two sacraments to connect us to him that we still celebrate in the Presbyterian Church. And, maybe not so coincidentally, they are sacraments that include touch.
The first is baptism. In baptism, by the touch of the water we receive new life in Christ and are brought into communion with other Christians.
The second is the Lord’s Supper, aka the Eucharist, aka communion. On the day of his resurrection the risen Jesus made himself known to his followers in the breaking of bread. Then, he kept showing up and feeding them for a while. The breaking and sharing of bread became a sacred act of remembrance, making present God’s gracious act in Jesus the Christ in the special moment of remembering.
Celebrating each of these sacraments keeps us connected to Jesus, and to celebrate them we need the church, too. It’s important to remember that being connected to Jesus is about relationship. To put it another way, faith is not an individual, isolated event. (you can’t really high five yourself just ask Steph Curry. Warriors fans did you see that back in January? He went in to high five Kevin Durant and Durant left him hanging).
We depend on the church to be the body of Christ on earth. the church truly only exists when we develop relationships of trust with one another. (That’s really what Thomas was after wasn’t it? Proof that he could trust the word of the other disciples? That they weren’t making up a story?)
To build relationships of trust, we need to be present together, to worship together, to have fellowship together.
A great team comes together after countless hours of practice with committed players, solid coaching, with a desire to learn from mistakes and to be better. With a commitment to shared team values. It’s never about a single superstar or one great coach, and the high fives are part of the whole team working together.
Take the Warriors for example. Last night they played without Kevin Durant and coach Steve Kerr, and two other players. But they still rallied to win. Why? Well, One sportswriter says, “It was a team effort in which Curry ended plenty of plays with buckets. The Warriors forced the willing Blazers into bad shots, grabbed numerous offensive rebounds to sustain possessions, and looked comfortable through it all. Missing a transformational superstar, two key reserves, and one of the league’s best head coaches wasn’t going to stop them. They’re experienced enough to know how to handle these situations and thrived.”
The church - this church - Knox Presbyterian Church - is a team. But, the chairs here, these aren’t the bleachers or the sidelines where you watch the game once a week. When you come through the doors, you’re not on the bench. You’re a player.
Worship is our warm-up, it’s where we stretch out, throw the ball around a few times, get a feel for each other as a team. How the church lives together after worship is how we practice working together as a team, and the Big Game is when we leave this place, to take it on the road.
And I never was a cheerleader, but I know:
We’ve got Spirit, yes we do we’ve got Spirit, How about you?